There’s no major league nor minor league baseball for the next couple months, at least, but there are a few reasons for optimism once the sport gets going again. I talked with former Angels third baseman Jack Howell, now the manager at Class-A Burlington, Iowa, about a few of the Halos’ top prospects.
Jo Adell leads the way among Angels minor leaguers, a consensus top-10 prospect in the game. He was in the top 100 on national lists before the 2018 season, and in the top 20 in 2019. Last year he hit .289/.359/.475 across three levels, and is considered a five-tool threat.
“Tremendous athlete, all around. Strong arm, strong swing. Really good routes and aggressive in the outfield, on the bases,” Howell said of Adell. “Just everything you don’t see too often from a young player like that. All the tools really showed themselves early.”
The biggest knock on Adell is his contact rate, but even with his 33-percent strikeout rate in his first taste of Triple-A, his other tools and performance was enough to have prospect evaluators rate him so highly.
“At my level there were things he needed to work on. He had to go through the process of Low-A and move on. It seems like at each level he’s made those adjustments and shown the things he needs to continue to do to improve,” Howell said. “The best thing I can say is that it’s no surprise he’s moving like he is.”
Howell was the minor league field coordinator when Adell was drafted in the first round of 2017, and managed Adell at the start of the 2018 season in Burlington. Adell was in his first full season as a professional, and turned 19 only in the first week of the season. He hit .326/.398/.611 with six home runs in a month before getting promoted to Inland Empire. The performance was even more impressive given the environment of the Midwest League, notoriously tough on hitters and with nasty weather.
“A lot of people don’t realize in the Midwest that first month we get snowed out a few times. If it’s not snowing, we’re playing in chilly drizzle weather,” Howell said. “That first month, whether you’re a kid from the Dominican who’s never seen that or a very young athletic guy like the Marshes and Adells, that first month can be tough as it is.”
In Adell’s time in Burlington, for instance, the Bees had six weather postponements in the first two weeks.
Brandon Marsh, a consensus top-100 prospect in baseball, is a year older than Adell, drafted in the second round in 2016. He and Adell were promoted to Inland Empire within a week of each other in 2018, when Marsh hit .295/.390/.470 with 12 doubles and three home runs in 34 games with Burlington at age 20.
The Angels drafted Jordyn Adams in the first round in 2018, and he played for Howell in nearly all of 2019, hitting .250/.346/.358 in 97 games at age 19. Adams was rated the No. 72 prospect by Baseball Prospectus, and No. 76 by ESPN.
Even with those fairly highly-regarded outfielders in the pipeline, the Angels’ farm system as a whole is ranked in the bottom half of baseball, rated the 18th-best system by Keith Law at The Athletic and 26th by MLB Pipeline, for instance.
But the top-heavy nature remains the strength of the system.
“I know scouting philosophies have changed a lot, but successful teams — you might not have a huge draft one through 30 — you can’t miss on those first few,” Howell said. “With Marsh, Adell, Adams, as a couple of pitchers, those top picks have really been athletic, fairly mentally tough, and showed the tools. When you get toolsy athletic guys, it’s exciting for player development because we can do a lot with those guys.”
One of those pitchers was Griffin Canning, the second-rounder in 2017 out of UCLA who has already had major league success. He was slated to begin 2020 in a revamped Angels starting rotation, but elbow discomfort sidelined his spring, including a PRP injection on March 6. He was slated to be reevaluated in the first week of April or so, but given the delay of opening day into at least May, if not longer, it remains to be seen whether Canning will in fact miss any time this year.
Canning never pitched for Howell in Low-A, but Hector Yan did. The left-hander pitched all of last season in Burlington, posting a 3.39 ERA in 109 innings, with 148 strikeouts. Yan was added to the 40-man roster in November, and was part of the Angels’ first round of roster cuts this spring. Yan in Burlington lowered his walk rate from 15 percent the two previous years to 11.4 percent in 2019, and saw his strikeout rate increase to a career-best 32.3 percent.
“Knowing his history of having an incredible live arm but the control was not there, we always tried to work on commanding that great stuff,” Howell said. “I saw him early make some progress from what I’d seen in the past, then he really started to go throughout the midpoint of the season.
“He’d dominate for an inning or two, and maybe in the past he’d lose control and it would be a gradual downhill slide to where his pitch count would be so high he couldn’t finish the innings we needed out of him. What I saw last year was he was able to make that quick adjustment, which is a huge learning point. He’d walk a guy, or maybe an error in the infield, and then he’d get behind in the count. You’d see him step off, take a deep breath, and go right at guys. ... That’s when you know a guy from the mental side is starting to trust and believe in himself, not get down, and be able to make those adjustments which all good pitchers need to do.”
Once we have baseball back on the field again, these will be players to keep an eye on for the Angels in 2020.