Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camp, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com will be visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- A month after taking over as the Angels' general manager, Billy Eppler included left-hander Sean Newcomb and right-hander Chris Ellis (his farm system's top two prospects at the time) in the November trade that brought Andrelton Simmons from the Braves.
While that deal upgraded the Angels' big league club, it also left them without a Top 100 prospect. The system now has just one first-round pick (catcher Taylor Ward) and one big-ticket international signing (shortstop Roberto Baldoquin). Their best advanced prospect, left-hander Nate Smith, projects as a back-of-the-rotation starter.
The Angels system has been at the bottom of several farm system rankings over the past four years. But while the Halos acknowledge the reviews, they don't dwell on them.
"Internally, there are a lot of players we're excited about, a lot of guys who will play in the Majors," said director of minor league operations Mike LaCassa, who noted that key big league contributors such as Kole Calhoun, Hector Santiago and Matt Shoemaker never received much love in prospect rankings. "There's always room to improve, ways to get better. We want to continue to add but what we have on the back fields, we're excited about."
The job of the development staff remains the same: to turn the talent on hand into big leaguers. To do so, Eppler hired former big leaguer Mike Gallego as director of baseball development and promoted LaCassa. As detailed in this story by MLB.com's Alden Gonzalez, the Angels are taking on a number of new initiatives to help improve the mental and cognitive development, nutrition and sleep habits of their prospects.
The Halos have managed to hold onto their first-round pick after forfeiting it as free-agent compensation six times in the previous 11 Drafts. Their No. 16 overall selection in 2016 is their second highest during that period.
Shortstop David Fletcher was known for his glove than his bat at Loyola Marymount, but he has surprised at the plate since the Angels drafted him in the sixth round last June. He hit .311/.377/.414 with 17 stolen bases while reaching low Class A in his pro debut. Fletcher has gotten three at-bats in big league games this spring and delivered two doubles, a single and a steal.
"He's been one of the guys we send over if they need backups, and he's gotten a chance a few times and made a good impression with how he plays the game," LaCassa said. "He does everything right. He's very even-keeled and confident. He makes every play at shortstop with great jumps and instincts and a solid-average arm with a quick release. He plays above his tools."
Baldoquin's pro debut didn't go as hoped last year after he signed for a franchise-record $8 million, as he hit just .235/.266/.294 with 33 errors in 77 games at high Class A Inland Empire. He did make progress late in the year, posting a .622 OPS and going error-free in his final 40 games, and he continued to make strides in the offseason.
"He's very much improved," LaCassa said. "He came to instructional league and bought into what we call the Halo Way. He spent the offseason in Miami working out with a few big leaguers and came here Feb. 1 for our Champions Camp.
"He's a different guy. He's really improved his English, his energy, his speed and strength. I think what Baldo is going to do in the first half this year will trump his first season."
A second-round pick out of a Georgia high school last June, Jahmai Jones has the ability to make an impact at the plate, on the bases and in center field. He hit just .244/.330/.344 in the Rookie-level Arizona League, but his numbers could take a jump in 2016 now that he's more acclimated to pro ball.
"Jahmai Jones certainly has the highest ceiling in our system," LaCassa said. "He's special. His tools are standout and his makeup is even better. He's an incredibly hard worker. He's inquisitive, the kind of kid who asks questions, takes notes, wants to emphasize every area of his development."
Right-hander Jake Jewell has had more success in the bullpen than in the rotation at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M JC and in pro ball, but the Halos believe he has the stuff to thrive as a starter. They moved him into the role full-time in mid-2015, and he already might be the system's best hope for a mid-rotation option.
"His fastball gets to the upper 90s, and it's heavy on top of that," LaCassa said. "Coming into last season, [he] had a good slider but no changeup. By May, he had developed a plus changeup, and today it's probably the best changeup in our system. The strides he made last year have us very excited about what he might put together this year."
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.