With an eye on the future, Angels planning youth movement for rest of season
During July, Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani was the American League player of the month.
Closer Raisel Iglesias was the AL reliever of the month.
And Alex Cobb, Patrick Sandoval and Ohtani all ranked in the top 10 of AL starters (minimum 20 innings pitched) in ERA.
They were the kind of individual performances that could have lifted the club back into the thick of the playoff race, a timely combination of star power and standout pitching that had been missing earlier in the season.
But, the Angels couldn’t capitalize. Their bats went cold. Injuries to key players up and down the roster — most notably Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon — finally caught up with them. And instead of making a dent in their deficit in the standings, they went just 13-11 and remained on the fringes of contention.
The Angels still might not have acted like all-out sellers at the trade deadline, and players and coaches in the clubhouse might continue to maintain a belief they can get back in the hunt.
But, at 52-54 and 7 ½ games out of a wild-card spot following a Monday loss to the Texas Rangers, their best chance at a late-season turnaround has likely already passed.
And over the first two days of August, the club quickly began to reset its sights on figuring out the long-term future.
After top pitching prospect Reid Detmers made his MLB debut Sunday, the Angels’ sudden youth movement continued Monday. Pitcher Chris Rodriguez was recalled to make his first major-league start. Outfielder Jo Adell was also called up for the first time this season.
Reid Detmers was the Angels’ top draft choice in 2020. After losing a season to the pandemic, his composure, command and routine have him in the majors.
“We’re at that point organizationally right now, it’s the right time to give opportunities to young players like this,” manager Joe Maddon said before Monday’s game, before Adell’s recall had even been officially announced.
Maddon quickly reiterated that the moves weren’t a sign the Angels are conceding the season, insisting that “we believe these young guys are ready to play here and be part of a winning environment.”
But their recent roster moves — which has also included bigger roles in the last month for outfielder Brandon Marsh, pitchers José Suarez and Jaime Barria, and others — are also creating something of an audition period, giving the team an extended look at promising players on the cusp of the majors.
“It’s very important for us going into the offseason,” Maddon said, “to know exactly what we have and what we need to do to move forward for next year.”
The Angels should have financial flexibility this winter, with roughly $70 million of salary — including almost $30 million from the expiration of Albert Pujols’ contract — set to come off the books, according to Spotrac.
There are glaring areas to spend money: a frontline starting pitcher, a deeper and more dependable bullpen, another bat or two to give the roster added depth.
But free agency might not fill every hole, especially not when the Angels project to have multiple vacancies in the rotation and potential openings at shortstop and in the outfield.
The search for young pitching has been going on for a while now. Patrick Sandoval has increasingly looked like a long-term option, impressing since joining the rotation in May. Suarez and Barria have shown flashes of potential in smaller sample sizes. And other minor-league call-ups such as José Quijada, Andrew Wantz and Austin Warren have been given opportunities in the bullpen.
“Is huge a big enough word?” Maddon said rhetorically when asked about the value of homegrown pitching. “It’s so difficult to go out and obtain quality pitching that you can have for several years. When you’re able to grow it yourself, it matters exponentially.”
The Angels kept their biggest trade pieces — such as closer Raisel Iglesias and starter Alex Cobb — as they sit six games out of a playoff spot.
The Angels hope Detmers and Rodriguez can offer viable options as well.
Both pitchers surpassed expectations this year — Detmers, the team’s 2020 first-round pick, by ascending to the majors in his first full professional year; and Rodriguez, a former fourth-round pick who had previously battled injuries, by making the opening day bullpen before being stretched out in the minor leagues as a starter and returning to the Angels on Monday night.
If all goes well, an Angels organization that was once looking thin on pitching depth could enter next spring with as many as six starters age 25 or younger competing for rotation spots — plus a deeper overall pool of pitching talent in the farm system after the club drafted, signed or traded for 27 new prospects last month.
“Between the guys you’re seeing up here now and the group that has just been drafted, it’s really exciting,” Maddon said. “That’s the way to do it.”
The same dynamic is unfolding with Adell and Marsh, the club’s top two position player prospects who are now together in the big leagues for the first time.
Though Marsh’s numbers haven’t been great through his first 15 MLB games — he’s batting .167 with 18 strikeouts, two doubles and no home runs — Maddon continued to tout his talent.
“He hasn’t had a lot of hits, but I like his game a lot,” Maddon said of Marsh, who has been the everyday center fielder with Trout still battling a calf strain. “I like the way he moves a lot. Just give him time. It’s going to get real hot.”
Adell struggled in his debut season last year, but made improvements in all facets of his game in triple-A Salt Lake this summer, batting .289 with 23 home runs and 69 RBI before getting called up Monday.
Maddon said Adell will alternate in both corner outfield spots along with Justin Upton and Adam Eaton.
Angels minor league players gave a “deeply disturbing” description of life in the minors, which an advocacy group says needs to be addressed.
“Talking to [general manager] Perry Minasian, the [front office] guys felt it was the time, so we did it,” Maddon said. “Based on our lot in life right now, it was just the right thing to do. You don’t want to waste the opportunity to give opportunities to guys like this. That is no kind of concession. If we could get him as hot here as he had been [in Salt Lake], it could be a big boon to us.”
There are some risks to the Angels’ strategy. Calling up players too soon can disrupt their development, especially if they fail at the big league level. Several top prospects around baseball have also struggled this year, a signal to some around the sport that the gap between triple-A and the majors has perhaps grown wider than usual.
Still, the benefits of filling out the roster and cultivating young talent to bolster a veteran core are too great for the Angels to ignore.
They have Ohtani under team control for at least two more years. They have at least several more seasons of Trout in his prime. And they’ll seemingly have the opportunity to add a few more big pieces this winter.
But to truly maximize their championship window, they’ll need more options, more depth and more homegrown talent too. And over the final two months of this season, they want to find out how much they already have in store.
“To go through these next two months and not fully evaluate what you have, it gives you no vision for the offseason and next year,” Maddon said. “So it’s imperative that you do.”
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