ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Rocket City Trash Pandas are nearly 2,000 miles away from Angel Stadium physically and about eight years ahead of their parent major league club spiritually. The former is evident each time the Los Angeles Angels recall a player from their Class AA affiliate. The latter was on display one Sunday last month as the Trash Pandas, located in Madison, Ala., celebrated winning the Southern League’s first-half title in the north division by spraying champagne.
Even with superstars like Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, the Angels have not popped any champagne corks since winning the American League West in 2014.
“The celebration was awesome. Our minor-league coordinator came down,” pitcher Chase Silseth said, referring to Joey Prebynski, who is in his second season in that position after spending two years as the St. Louis Cardinals’ run prevention coach. “They’ve been telling us since spring training, ‘This is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to win down here.’”
But the hapless and traditionally pitching-starved Angels, in free fall again this season, are not only paying lip service toward a culture change in their minor league system. They executed a strategy for the draft last summer that had not been tried at any point since the draft’s inception in 1965: They picked all pitchers.
From the first round through the last, the Angels went 20 for 20. Right-handers, left-handers. Most project as starters. Some figure to land in the bullpen. Tall pitchers (the eighth-round pick, Nick Jones, and 15th rounder, Glenn Albanese, are both 6-foot-6). Short pitchers (the 20th rounder, Marcelo Perez, is 5-foot-10). Heavy pitchers (the first-round pick, Sam Bachman, weighs 234 pounds). Light pitchers (the fourth-rounder, Luke Murphy, weighs 175). Nineteen of the 20 were college pitchers, indicating the Angels’ urgency: College pitchers are older than high school pitchers, generally more advanced and, as such, have quicker paths to the majors.
Early indications for the Angels are promising, even if things at the big-league level are going south yet again: Nine pitchers from last year’s draft have made up a bulk of the Rocket City staff this season, including Silseth, Bachman, Jones, Murphy, Ky Bush, Brett Kerry, Eric Torres, Braden Olthoff and Mason Erla.
And Silseth became the first of the 612 players chosen in last year’s draft to reach the majors, earning the win in his May 13 debut at Oakland.
“Pitching obviously was a priority for us, something we really wanted to attack,” said Perry Minasian, the Angels’ second-year general manager, who was overseeing his first big-league draft in 2021. “We thought it was a really good crop of arms last year, and obviously with the shortened draft the previous year there was not only quality, but quantity.”
Because of the pandemic, the 2020 draft was shortened to just five rounds, which helped provide that quantity. This year’s draft, which begins on July 17 and will run for three days, also consists of 20 rounds, down from the 40 of previous years as a result of the new collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners.
Whether the Angels’ philosophy of buying in bulk could lead to a trend in an industry in which pitching always seems to be in short supply is something that other clubs have debated in their own internal conversations.
“It’s a terrific question,” Joe DelliCarri, Pittsburgh’s scouting director since 2012, said. “We could probably go on for hours discussing what’s going on in the game and how pitching is being used in major league baseball, if you have the horses to go six innings versus how many pitchers are going only four or five innings.”
“Rosters with 13 pitchers, how that trickles down into our work, that’s going to be interesting,” he added. “Every team is having a lot of dialogue with that. We are.”
DelliCarri was the Pirates’ assistant scouting director in 2010, when the club opened eyes by taking right-handed pitchers with nine of their first 10 picks. Their first choice that year was Jameson Taillon, a right-hander who had injury woes derail him for several years but has pitched well since last year’s trade to the Yankees. Only four others advanced to the majors — Nick Kingham, Jason Hursh, Brandon Cumpton and Zack Weiss (who faced just four batters in 2018, failed to obtain an out and has a career E.R.A. of infinity). Of the nine pitchers, only Taillon has made an impact.
Though the Pirates needed pitching at the time, DelliCarri said the club did not make a concerted effort to target right-handers. It just happened that those pitchers were the best available at the time, in the Pirates’ opinion. Just as Mike Chernoff, Cleveland’s general manager, said the Guardians were not necessarily focused on all pitching in last summer’s draft despite the fact that 19 of their 21 picks were pitchers. Only the Angels drafted more.
“Believe it or not, it was more just a function of who was on the board at the times we were picking,” Chernoff said. “We did not go in with a strategic approach to grab a ton of pitching. We do feel our system is deep in position-player talent. But we tried to take the best player on the board given the spots we were in.
“I do think it was an exceptionally strong pitching draft.”
The Angels, the Guardians and the San Francisco Giants, who selected pitchers with 14 of their 20 picks last year — including 13 who were college-aged — hope time proves that it indeed was a strong pitching draft.
Overall, however, the vagaries and unpredictability of the amateur talent pools make it exceptionally difficult to match a specific skill set with an organizational need in a given year.
“I can only speak for us, but every year is different, every draft is different,” A.J. Preller, San Diego’s president of baseball operations, said. “Some years, there’s strength in catching. Some years, there’s strength in high school position players. For us, we’re still best-player-available every single round.”
Even in an age with a dearth of pitching in the majors, most scouts view this as a light year for top-level amateur pitching.
“There is no pitching anywhere,” said one official with an American League team who was not authorized to publicly discuss the draft. “There is no pitching on planet earth.”
Perhaps if that proves to be accurate, the Angels — and Guardians and Giants — did well to buy pitching in bulk in last summer’s draft. But no draft comes with guarantees. In 2018, Kansas City selected 26 pitchers among their 43 picks, and in 2021 five of those pitchers started at least one game for the Royals — Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Jon Heasley — to make history and raise expectations. It was the first time five pitchers from the same draft class started a game in the majors in the same season for the team that drafted them.
But time is still rendering its verdict: Singer, Bubic and Lynch are currently in the Royals’ rotation, Heasley has made 11 starts but is on the injured list with a sore shoulder, Kowar is in their bullpen and Kansas City so far has played under expectations. As measured by E.R.A., WHIP and total runs allowed, the Royals’ rotation is the worst in the A.L. Whether the pitchers are going through the customary developmental hard knocks or if these starters will become busts will not be known for a few years.
As for the Angels, the first-half title in Rocket City was a celebratory moment, but as with all minor league moments, it comes with caution.
“We’ve been really encouraged,” Prebynski said. “The maturity, the overall competitiveness of the group, and also from a stuff standpoint. Most of those guys came from places where they were competing at a high level, so we felt good.”
So, too, does a certain Angel who regularly has been shut out from the playoffs in his career and whose biological baseball clock is ticking more loudly every day.
“I think we looked at the pitchers last year and thought it would be a huge upgrade for us, and obviously it’s paid off,” said Trout, who turns 31 on Aug. 7. “Look at the Double-A team, it’s unbelievable.”