Monday, June 18, 2007

By Chuck Richter - Executive Editor

For those criticizing the lack of production and the overabundance of hype of the Angels’ minor league system, consider that for every Dallas McPherson, Jeff Mathis, and Casey Kotchman, there is a Howie Kendrick, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, Mike Napoli, and Jered Weaver. There isn’t a single organization out there that sees 100% of their “top” prospects immediately make a big impact upon reaching the big leagues. Should McPherson, Mathis, and Kotchman all fail (not likely), the team still has Brandon Wood and others for third base, Mike Napoli and Hank Conger at catcher, and Kendry Morales for 1B. That is the epitome of a deep organization. The Angels have not been shy about rolling the dice on risky signees like Nick Adenhart, Sean O’Sullivan, and others, and it’s starting to pay off with improving farm depth. The only real weak spot in the organization is in the outfield, so look for the Angels to be aggressive in free agency in that area this off season. GM Bill Stoneman has drawn a lot of criticism from fans and the media for his “stand pat” policy during recent trade deadlines and with guys like Kotchman and McPherson yet to live up to their potential, he needs guys like Kendrick and Weaver to be major contributors in 2007. The key to any GM’s success is knowing which prospects to hold onto and which to trade (and when). Whether Stoneman has learned this is still to be determined. On to the Top 20...

1. Brandon Wood, SS - DOB: 3/2/85 - Drafted 2003 1st Round - #23 overall

When Wood blossomed in 2005 to the tune of 101 overall XBH’s, Angels fans had to be lamenting the fact that GM Bill Stoneman had locked up SS Orlando Cabrera through 2008. Well, in Stoneman’s defense, he along with the rest of us, had no reason to expect Wood to explode and start putting up corner outfield numbers from the shortstop position. Wood answered his doubters somewhat this year who termed his 2005 season an “aberration” and “park-aided”. Wood’s power is legit. His wiry frame, strong wrists, and Sheffield-like bat speed generates tremendous torque in his swing. He’s a legitimate threat to lead majors league shortstops in home runs for a decade once he makes it up.

Power is not all Wood has however. He’s able to draw his share of walks and while he won’t win any batting titles with his swing, I think he can be a .280 hitter in the big leagues. The jump in his strikeout rate (K/AB) from last year (24% to 33%) is a bit alarming, but give the kid a break. He was one of the youngest hitters in Double-A. He’ll also steal a few bases and more than one scout thinks he can work hard enough to make himself a legitimate defender at SS. Most likely will move to 3B for the Angels, who also have Erick Aybar in addition to Cabrera, but Wood’ bat will play anywhere, including left field if necessary. A perennial All-Star in the making and will debut in the majors sometime in 2007. An impressive spring training could hasten his arrival.

2. Nick Adenhart, RHP - DOB: 8/24/86 - Drafted 2004 14th Round - #413 overall

Tommy John surgery in 2004 got his career with the Angels off to a slow start, but since the surgery happened prior to the draft, the Angels knew what they were getting in terms of his health, and after being brought along slowly in 2005, the organization took the reins off in 2006. The results? Quite good. Adenhart is the complete package, possessing three plus pitches (low 90s and higher fastball, plus curve, and a very good change, especially for a kid who just turned 20). Adenhart also exhibits very good command as you can see by his better than 3:1 K:BB ratio in the minors, including a near-3.5:1 rate in 2006. Adenhart also has a nice 6’3” frame, confidence, etc. The total package. Will compete with several guys to be a top three overall pitching prospects (behind Homer Bailey and Phil Hughes) on the pre-season RotoAmerica Top 100 prospect list. Has true #1 starter ability and could push for the big leagues by 2008. He was also Eddie Bane’s “Angels Minor League Pitcher of the Year”. If he stays healthy and dominates at Rancho Cucamonga early on he could rise to Arkansas & possible Salt Lake by season end.

3. Erick Aybar, SS - DOB: 1/14/84 - Signed 2002 – Dominican Republic

Utilityman or future major league regular? I’d tend to lean towards the latter, but Aybar’s regression in the hitter-friendly PCL this year was somewhat concerning, as was his 8/0 K/BB ratio in 40 major league at-bats. Aybar in the field exhibits plus range and a great arm, which alone are good enough to ensure that he hangs around the big leagues for awhile. At the plate, he makes hard, consistent contact, and has a bit of pop, especially for a shortstop. I could potentially see 35 doubles, double-digit triples, and 10-15 homers annually. He’s got a quick bat and possesses above-average speed on the bases as you can see from his SB totals. Some scouts say he’s Jose Reyes-lite and we’re inclined to believe them.

The downside? Plate discipline! First and foremost, though as Jose Reyes proved, that can improve with the proper teaching. While Aybar doesn’t strike out a lot, as a possible future leadoff man, he could certainly benefit from taking a few more pitches. His career minor league OBP of .356 is solid enough, but it’s also declined in each of the last two seasons. Additionally, he can be too reckless on the base paths, as evidenced by his sub-par 65% SB rate over five seasons. With Brandon Wood and Orlando Cabrera ahead of him, his immediate future is as a utility man, but a move of Wood to 3B and a Cabrera deal could potentially open up SS for him. More likely I think: a trade to another organization.

4. Sean Rodriguez, SS - DOB: 4/26/85 - Drafted 2003 3rd Round - #90 overall

Eddie Bane’s “Angels Minor League Hitter of the Year” Rodriguez, like fellow SS Brandon Wood in 2005, used the CAL league as his coming out party and now ranks as a very good prospect. According to one scout, he shortened his long swing up a bit, allowing for an increase in his AVG of 51 points while still knocking 29 balls out of the yard. I am concerned about the regression in his plate discipline (BB/AB rate dropped from 17% in 2005 to 11% in 2006). One theory is that he got a bit power-hungry (happens in the CAL league) and swung at too many bad pitches. Decreasing his strikeouts and continuing his progression will be the focus in Triple-A for “S-Rod” this year. Long term most see him winding up in left field or third base, as he does have plenty of arm for shortstop, but lacks the range and is a bit erratic. It will be interesting to see what the Angels do with him this year. Probably he or Wood winds up at 3B at Salt Lake to begin the year. Some scouts believe he could be a very good utility guy in the big leagues, but I see him as a future regular no matter where he plays defensively.

5. Hank Conger, C - DOB: 1/29/88 - Drafted 2006 1st Round - #25 overall

Despite already having major-league ready catchers in Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli, the Angels went with whom they believed to be the top talent available when their pick came up in the 2006 draft. The Korean Conger is a local kid (Huntington Beach) whose real name is Hyun (Dad gave him the nickname after the HR champ, Hank Aaron). He certainly acquitted himself well in his 2006 debut, showing solid skills from both sides of the plate.

Hit just one homer in 19 games before breaking the hamate bone in his wrist, but his power really isn’t in doubt. In addition to his solid raw power, Conger shows a good approach at the plate and should be a consistent .350+ OBP type guy. What really set him apart for the Angels was his overall makeup and willingness to work on his deficiencies, particularly the defensive ones. With a natural strong arm and the willingness to improve, he should be able to stick behind the plate. He should be ready for full-season ball at age 19 in 2007.

6. Matthew Sweeney, 3B - DOB: 4/4/88 - Drafted 2006 8th Round - #252 overall

Who? Sweeney has been hearing that throughout his career, even back in high school when the best he could do was wind up at Potomac St. JC, which of course he decided to pass on in favor of joining the Angels. According to Eddie Bane, area scouts, Dan Radcliff and Eastern supervisor Mark Russo wouldn’t let Bane have another team snatch him away in the ’06 amateur draft, they were really high on him, said Bane. Sweeney presents an intriguing mix of hitting ability, power potential, and plate discipline. According to Eddie Bane “We’re pleasantly surprised as he has a beautiful LH swing with power”. The only question is where he’ll wind up defensively, though he works very hard on his defense, outstanding work ethic. As long as his performance at the plate continues, the Angels will worry about that at the higher levels. Intriguing: he played catcher in High School.

7. Ryan Mount, SS - DOB: 8/17/86 - Drafted 2005 2nd Round - #58 overall

Hard to imagine that after an awful debut in 2005, that he’d rank this high on the Angels’ list headed into 2007, but that’s a testament to Mount’s focus and determination. The big thing with Mount, a left-handed hitter, is his inability to hit same-side pitching. In 52 at-bats, he hit just .173/.259/.231 against southpaws and struck out 21 times. Guys like Ryan Howard have shown that this handicap can be overcome, but then again, not every young prospect will turn into Ryan Howard. Mount shows advanced plate discipline skills for his age, although he could certainly stand to lower his strikeout totals. Second base may be in his future (especially in this organization), but he has the tools to stick at short as well.

8. Stephen Marek, RHP - DOB: 9/3/83 - Drafted 2004 40th Round - #1193 overall

A draft-and-follow who was primarily a reliever in college, Marek had a so-so debut last year in the Pioneer League, all while facing competition that was by and large younger than himself. Given another year as a starter however, Marek blossomed in 2006 in the Midwest League, and eventually formed a solid 1-2 punch with Nick Adenhart in the CAL league. Pitching-wise, Marek features a fastball that reportedly reached as high as 98 but sat comfortably in the low 90s with movement. Some think his curve is his best pitch and the right-hander also features a solid change that he used to keep hitters off balance. He repeats his delivery well and with three solid pitches, Marek should be able to remain in the starting rotation, although organizational needs could eventually dictate a move to the bullpen. As he turns 24 late in 2007, the organization could be aggressive with him and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him up in August and September as an injury fill-in or extra arm out of the bullpen. Marek looks like a future #3 starter or late-inning reliever.

9. Jose Arredondo, RHP - DOB: 3/30/84 - Signed 2002 – Dominican Republic

Most may not know, but Arredondo is a converted shortstop who converted to pitching in 2004, so pardon him if he’s a bit raw. Despite his inexperience, the Angels were aggressive with him this year, jumping him to High-A to start the year despite Arredondo having just five-plus innings at a level higher than rookie ball entering 2006. He responded by showing off an upper 90s fastball (hit 99 MPH at times), splitter, slider, and change. Since he’s still so new to pitching, his change and slider are works in progress, but both show potential. He’s slight-of-build at 6-foot, 170, leading to some speculation that his electric arm could be best-served in the bullpen, but for now the organization seems committed to giving him a chance to develop as a starter. Struggled with his command and confidence upon reaching Double-A, so look for him to return there to open 2007.

10. Terry Evans, OF - DOB: 1/19/82 - Drafted 2001 47th Round - #1409 overall

Ok, who had heard of Terry Evans in 2003? 2004? How about 2005? I’ll freely admit that Evans wasn’t even approaching my radar prior to 2006, upon which he had a clear-cut prototypical “breakout” year. Came to the Angels from St. Louis in the Jeff Weaver deal (worked out well for both sides as it turned out). Evans had, prior to 2006, always been regarded as one of those “toolsy” type players that you hear so much about (i.e. the Rubens - Rivera and Mateo), but it took four-plus years for tools to translate into production. 33 home runs and 37 stolen bases later, he’s a legitimate prospect knocking on the major league door, and for a team devoid of high-ceiling outfield prospects and lacking in depth at the major league level, Evans has at least a chance of winning a fourth outfielder job this spring. Sure, his 127/41 K/BB ratio isn’t all that pretty, but he has shown improvement there this year as well. At 6’4”, 210+, he has the strength to be a thirty home run guy and despite his bulk, he’s a very good athlete with good speed, so he could stick in center, but most scouts see him in right field long term considering his body type and plus arm.

Rest of the Top 20 (11-20):

11. Sean O'Sullivan, RHP – 55/7 K/BB ratio in 14 Pioneer League starts this year.
12. Jeff Mathis, C – star has faded, but still has the tools to be an everyday catcher.
13. Peter Bourjos, OF – 2005 10th rounder showed promise in pro debut in 2006.
14. Reggie Willits, OF – gets on base, runs like the wind, but no power.
15. Chris Pettit, OF – 19th round pick far better than expected in '06: .336/.445/.566.
16. Thomas Mendoza, RHP – control artist who’s probably two years away.
17. Hainley Statia, SS – solid contact hitter, lacks pop, but excels defensively.
18. Trevor Bell, RHP – 2005 #37 overall pick impressed in '06. Big fastball and curve!
19. Felipe Arredondo, RHP – 12.3 K/9 rate. Profiles as a late inning reliever.
20. Robert Mosebach, RHP – 22 year-old is a potential #5 starter, lacks of top-shelf stuff

Others to watch: Matt Brown, 3B; Clay Fuller, OF; Rafael Rodriguez, RHP; David Herndon, RHP; Chris Armstrong, LHP; Nick Green, RHP, Bobby Wilson, C; Kevin Jepsen, RHP.
Love to hear what you think!


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