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Angels' prospect Taylor Ward is the next name to know

Angels' prospect Taylor Ward is the next name to know
Angels prospect Taylor Ward at spring training at Tempe Diablo Stadium. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

He would be one of the most popular Angels today were it not for one minor shortcoming.

He isn’t an actual Angel.

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Not yet, at least.

But Taylor Ward is doing everything he can to change that, one impressive swing after another.

“The kid can definitely hit,” outfielder Eric Young Jr. said. “I’m excited to see what he has in store for the future. There shouldn’t be anything but big things for him if he continues to work.”

Young and Ward were teammates at triple-A Salt Lake for two months before Young rejoined the Angels at the end of July.

And that infrastructure — the feeder system that turns minor league prospects into major league players — is the stage from which many can grow their popularity long before their big-league careers even take root.

Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani are unquestionably the most famous Angels at the moment. Albert Pujols, in the larger context of the game’s history, couldn’t be more famous.

After that, though, particularly among the Angels’ hardcore fans, an argument could be made that the organization’s next most popular player is Jo Adell, who currently is a member of the double-A Mobile BayBears.

Adell is the franchise’s top prospect and has been promoted twice this season. It was significant news this week that Adell is sidelined because of a jammed thumb, even though the injury is minor and shouldn’t impact the 2018 Angels.

Still, in this live-streaming, real-time information age, for the fans of a team stuck at .500 in August and facing a double-digit deficit to make the playoffs, what’s coming next can be decidedly more intriguing than what’s already here.

The same prospect lists that have Adell No. 1 for the Angels have Ward in the top 10, a distinction that automatically establishes him as a fan favorite among those weary of watching the Angels search for answers at third base.

Ward’s potential has been highly regarded since the Angels drafted him in the first round in 2015.

At that time, in fact, Baseball America suggested that his arm strength could make him a candidate to pitch if he failed to develop as a hitter, something that seems quite unlikely now.

“This kid can really hit,” reliever Taylor Cole said. “He’s on a roll. You see his numbers and they’re just stupid. He’s going to be exciting to watch up here.”

Taylor Ward runs the bases during a minor league game in Salt Lake City.
Taylor Ward runs the bases during a minor league game in Salt Lake City. (Asay Photography / Salt Lake Bees)

Entering Thursday, Ward was batting .350 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .978 in 98 games. He had 14 home runs and 17 steals, and remember how much the Angels’ offense has idled this summer.

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Ward appeared in 42 games at Mobile before being promoted to Salt Lake, where his numbers mostly have improved in a league famous for being kind to hitters.

“He’s got a great idea of what he’s doing in the box,” infielder Kaleb Cowart said. “He swings at the right pitches. He works counts. He barrels the baseball. It’s all impressive.

“And he had the same sort of stats in Mobile too, and that’s not the greatest place to hit in the world.”

A possible opening for Ward began to show itself on the Angels’ last trip, when Luis Valbuena, who leads the team in starts at third base, was designated for assignment.

The speculation grew when Keith Johnson was promoted from manager at Salt Lake to Mike Scioscia’s big-league staff in order to work with the Angels’ young infielders.

Ward, 24, has spent this season moving from catcher to third base, that ongoing conversion one of the reasons that Cowart, a more than capable defender, instead was called up to replace Valbuena.

“He has embraced the position switch and tackled it,” general manager Billy Eppler said. “To continue to hit while he’s been in that transition mode. … It’s been encouraging and really great to see.”

Eppler’s background includes experience in and around the NFL. Like many football teams, the Angels in their player evaluations create profiles designed to maximize potential.

Ward’s profile suggested that he had the athletic ability to switch to third base and that such a move would benefit his progress as a hitter. At this point, Ward has brought that profile to life.

“This has freed up an opportunity to focus on some things on the offensive side,” Eppler said. “Taylor has just taken off. We couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s done so far.”

When he signed with the Angels in 2015, Ward was asked how long it would take him to reach the majors. He suggested two, maybe three years. “That would be great,” he said.

Today marks three years and two months. The kid never has been closer. He also never has been more popular.

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