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Angels groom Luis Rengifo, others to become Swiss army knives

Angels groom Luis Rengifo, others to become Swiss army knives
Houston Astros' George Springer in action against Angels' Luis Rengifo in Monterrey, Mexico, on Saturday. (Miguel Sierra / European Pressphoto Agency)

Luis Rengifo is the organization’s top middle-infield prospect, and he showed during his first stint with the Angels that the major league game “is not too big or too fast for him,” general manager Billy Eppler said after the 22-year-old switch-hitter was optioned back to triple-A on Tuesday.

But when Rengifo returns to the Angels, he might be more of utility player than a middle infielder.

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“He’ll go back to Salt Lake and move around,” Eppler said. “He’ll play some second base, some shortstop, some outfield, perhaps third base, and we’ll continue to try to develop another Swiss army knife.”

Most prospects become utility players out of necessity. Their path to the big leagues is blocked by an established veteran at their position or they’re not quite good enough to seize an everyday spot, so they try to increase their versatility.

Eppler and the Angels under new manager Brad Ausmus are taking a more proactive approach by developing utility men in the minor leagues, players who can fill roles similar to David Fletcher, who plays second, third, shortstop and left field, and Zack Cozart, who plays three infield spots for the big league club.

Taylor Ward, a first-round pick in 2015, is playing third base, first base and left field at Salt Lake. Matt Thaiss, a first-round pick in 2016, is playing first base and third base. Jahmai Jones, a second-round pick in 2015, is playing infield and outfield at double-A Mobile.

“I just think having multiple pieces who can play multiple positions can only give you an advantage,” Eppler said. “It makes Brad’s job easier, and it makes my job easier from a roster construction standpoint. It also adds more value to the player.”

The versatility of Fletcher and Cozart enabled the Angels to keep an extra pitcher and retain first baseman Justin Bour when Shohei Ohtani was activated and took over as the everyday designated hitter Tuesday.

Eppler does not believe expanding the defensive versatility of young players necessarily inhibits their development at one position. Proficiency at multiple positions shouldn’t prevent a player from excelling at one position.

“I’m a fan of cross-training, of utilizing athleticism, baseball intelligence, awareness, feel,” Eppler said. “I think those are advantageous. I find it hard to sit here and say if a guy played one position he’d be a 70 on the [20-to-80] scouting scale but because he plays four positions he’s a 50 at four. I don’t know if I buy that.”

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