In the heyday of the Angels organization from 2002-2009, the club went on the best run in franchise history, thanks to an uncanny ability to draft, sign and develop legitimate prospects year after year. During that time, the club won their first World Series in 2002 and took home five American League West division championships, while averaging 93 seasons a year.
What separated the Angels from other franchises was their diverse ways of acquiring talent. They drafted well (Jered Weaver, Howie Kendrick, Mike Napoli), scouted well internationally (Erick Aybar, Ervin Santana, Kendrys Morales) and made shrewd free agent signings (Vladimir Guerrero, Torii Hunter). Headed by General Manager Bill Stoneman, the Angels ran laps around almost every other team when it came to identifying talent.
With the ups come the downs, however, and the Angels experienced a down period after 2009, with the club failing to win a single playoff game from 2010-2017. Much of the wounds the franchise dealt with were self-inflicted, due to the club’s inability to stick to a long-term plan. Two separate general managers, Tony Reagins and Jerry Dipoto, struggled mightily to build a competitive MLB club and develop the farm system. The club made ill-advised trades (looking at you Vernon Wells), made poor signings (Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton) and had little luck developing players within their system. The club was also at a disadvantage due to losing first round picks from 2012-2013 (Pujols and Hamilton signings) while also being restricted in the international market from 2015-2016.
Building from within, which was once a strength, became a franchise-ravaging weakness that crippled the club’s ability to consistently win games. Mike Trout‘s selection in the 2009 MLB Draft was a saving grace for a franchise that couldn’t build from within for an extended period of time. Outside of Trout, the only other homegrown players to reach 10 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in that 2010-2017 timeframe were Kole Calhoun, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Jered Weaver and Garrett Richards.
Heading into 2016, Keith Law of ESPN declared the Angels farm system the “worst he’d ever seen” in his years of evaluating prospects. From 2016-2017, Jahmai Jones, a Jerry Dipoto draftee, was the only legitimate prospect who garnered top prospect talk. In the six years Mike Trout has been in Anaheim, only once has the franchise had more than one top prospect on any list (Andrew Heaney and Sean Newcomb on Baseball America’s 2015 list).
Within the last calendar year, however, the Angels have seen a complete overhaul of their farm system. After the 2015 season, following Jerry Dipoto’s fallout with the Angels, Billy Eppler was hired as General Manager of the club. In two years at the helm, Eppler has managed to transform much of the organization and has the club looking much better heading into the 2018 season.
Moves to acquire quality players such as Andrelton Simmons and Justin Upton have helped the MLB club in a huge way but beneath the surface, Eppler has been chipping away below the MLB level. The 2016 Draft tested both Eppler and new Scouting Director Matt Swanson’s abilities to identify talent. So far, returns have been positive for that draft as second round pick Brandon Marsh and fourth round pick Chris Rodriguez are on many people’s radars.
2017 proved to be a huge year for the Angels, even with the MLB club only winning 80 games, as Billy Eppler and the front office acquired an abundance of young talent. The 2017 Draft brought Jordon Adell and Griffin Canning on board, adding two legitimate prospects to the system. Just weeks later, after being restricted from international spendings due to the Roberto Baldoquin debacle, the Angels got active in the international signing period, signing both Trent Deveaux and D’Shawn Knowles.
In early December, the Angels jumped at the opportunity to sign Kevin Maitan, along with Livan Soto, who were both released after the Atlanta Braves signing scandal. To add the cherry on top to 2017, the Angels were victorious in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, which changed the future landscape for the franchise.
Recently, the major media outlets for prospect coverage released their Top 100 Prospect lists. Those outlets (Baseball America, MLB Pipeline, ESPN) had three or more Angels listed on their rankings, which marked the first time three Angels were listed on any Top 100 Prospect list since 2012 (Baseball America listed Mike Trout, Jean Segura and Garrett Richards).
Last month, Baseball America listed three Angels (Shohei Ohtani, Jordon Adell, Jahmai Jones) on their list. MLB Pipeline had those same players, along with Kevin Maitan, while ranking Ohtani as their top prospect in baseball. Keith Law of ESPN had five different Angels (Adell, Jones, Jaime Barria, Chris Rodriguez, Brandon Marsh), while excluding Ohtani, who Law believed didn’t qualify as a prospect given his international experience at a high level.
Six players were listed on three separate lists, which is a mighty feat given that only one big media outlet included an Angel on their Top 100 List last season (Jahmai Jones at Fangraphs). In 2016, no outlet had an Angel within sniffing distance of their rankings. This improvement speaks to the phenomenal work Billy Eppler has done in just two years of work.
From a historical perspective, these rankings bode well for the Angels, who haven’t had this many talented prospects in over a decade. The last time the Angels had more than three prospects ranked on a Top 100 list was all the way back in 2006, when the Angels were churning out quality major leaguers with ease. In 2006, Baseball America listed seven Angels on their list: Brandon Wood, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Jered Weaver, Jeff Mathis, Kendrys Morales and Nick Adenhart.
As the 2018 season nears, there is more optimism surrounding the Angels than the club has been accustomed to in recent years. Shohei Ohtani’s addition, along with the re-signing of Justin Upton, a trade for Ian Kinsler, and a signing of Zack Cozart have the MLB club looking competitive heading into the season. More importantly, the Angels have found an identity and have started to build an organization that looks capable of long-term success. That minor league organization is spotlighted and ranked in my 2018 Angels Top 50 Prospects, which was published last month here on Prospects1500.
Article featured image of Shohei Ohtani – courtesy Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports/halosheaven.com