A look at top players from the Inland Empire 66ers 2015 squad

Jered Weaver just before his 2nd rehab start with Eric Aguilera #24 and 3rd baseman Angel Rosa who were both promoted in late August to the Triple-A Salt Lake City Bees
Jered Weaver just before his 2nd rehab start with Eric Aguilera #24 and 3rd baseman Angel Rosa who were both promoted in late August to the Triple-A Salt Lake City Bees /

Jered Weaver, Kole Calhoun, Colin Cowgill and C.J. Cron all have one thing in common besides being current Los Angeles Angels players, they all played for the Angels’ current Single-A affiliate, the Inland Empire 66ers in the California League.

Mike Trout, Matt Shoemaker, Erick Aybar and Garrett Richards also played Single-A ball for the Angels, just with their former affiliate, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.

So why do I bring this up? This year I had a chance to go out to watch the Inland Empire 66ers play three times. While my purpose for being out there was to cover Jered Weaver and Colin Cowgill’s rehab assignments, I also enjoyed watching this year’s crop of players. Some players will definitely be major leaguers in the not too distant future if they continue to play like they did this year for the 66ers.

Now in my baseball watching career I have seen many great players while they were in Single-A before they made it big in “The Show.” Some notable names are Mike Piazza, Randy

, Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, David Ortiz, beloved former Angel Torii Hunter and one of the most hated players of Angels fans everywhere, A.J. Pierzynski. With this being said, I did not see any players that I believe will be perennial All-Stars like the list above (excluding Pierzynski).

Offseason trades that resulted in the losses of top prospects Sean Newcomb and Trevor Gott as well as another good young arm in Chris Ellis depleted our farm system, but I saw a few players playing for the 66ers that could be possible attractions for the Los Angeles Angels in the next three to four years.

The most impressive hitter hands down was first baseman Eric Aguilera. Aguilera played 119 games for the 66ers, finishing with 17 homers, 94 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. He also had 38 doubles and batted .327 for the season, all of which were tops on the team. Not only can Aguilera hit, but he is also a very good fielder.

He made a standout play in the field in all three games that I went to. Aguilera either made a nice stretch or a clutch scoop of a low throw and looked like a veteran first baseman who could potentially win a Gold Glove one day in the majors. As a hitter, Aguilera had a great approach in almost every at-bat and he hit left-handed pitching very well as a lefty.

One at-bat that stuck out in my mind was in extra innings with the 66ers down to their last out trailing 5-4. Aguilera fought back from an 0-2 count against tough lefty reliever Griffin Russell of the Lake Elsinore Storm, fouling off multiple pitches before evening the count at 2-2. He then laced a single to right-center to keep the rally going in a game the 66ers would win 6-5 on a Caleb Adams two-run double three batters later.

The only knock against Aguilera is that he is older compared to most Single-A players at 25 years old, coupled with the fact that he ended the season in Double-A for the Arkansas Travelers batting only .121 (4-33) in nine games. However, I feel that he will have more success next season in Double-A, but only time will tell if Aguilera can adjust to the better pitching at the next level and keep moving up the ranks in the Angels’ farm system.

The most impressive

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to me (other than Jered Weaver) for the 66ers was reliever Alex Blackford. Blackford, despite a 2-4 record and 5.12 ERA in 51 innings, was nothing short of stellar in the two games I saw him pitch.

In the first game against the Bakersfield Blaze, Blackford relieved Weaver in his first rehab start with two outs in the fourth inning and stranded two runners. He went on to pitch 3.1 innings of scoreless relief, allowing no runs on three hits with three strikeouts. He changed speeds well and threw strikes right from the moment he stepped on the mound.

In talking to him after the game about relieving Weaver, Blackford said “I was a little nervous stepping on the mound after (Weaver). But once I threw my first couple of pitches, I settled down and was able to get guys out.”

So what did Blackford do for an encore? In the game against Lake Elsinore after closer Geoff Broussard blew a 4-3 ninth inning lead, Blackford came on and was lights out for the first four innings by allowing no hits or runs.

In the top of the 14th, Blackford was touched for two hits and one run, but still managed two strikeouts in the inning that limited the damage and allowed the 66ers a chance to rally in the bottom of the 14th inning. Blackford’s totals for the game were an eye-popping five innings pitched, two hits, one run and no walks to go with nine strikeouts while getting his second win of the season.

I’m not sure what caused Blackford’s ERA to be so high, because his low 90s fastball and his wicked slider and curve ball were very tough to hit. In addition, Blackford’s poise on the mound was impressive as well. One stat to take note of is that he had 73 strikeouts in the 51 innings he pitched for the 66ers. Another was his 3:1 strikeouts to walks ratio (73:24). If he keeps at it, I could see Blackford being a Huston Street-like

in the majors.

Jered Weaver with three 66'ers players. Blackford said watching Weaver was invaluable for him and others on the team.
Jered Weaver with three 66ers players. Blackford said watching Weaver was invaluable for him and others on the team. /

Caleb Adams played mostly left field and hit .293 with four home runs and 26 RBIs with a .380 OBP in 51 games after getting promoted mid-season.  Adams is a battler and seems to be able to come through in the clutch, which is always a good sign for a hitter.

He will most likely start 2016 in Double-A, but a fast start could land him in Triple-A by mid-season. Adams would be a long shot to see action in the majors next year, but a strong season in the minors would go a long way in making that a reality.

Bo Way, the 66ers’ center fielder, was another player I enjoyed watching. Way gives it 110 percent every time he takes the field. He is a top of the order guy that the Angels could really use, but before getting too excited, he is almost for sure two years away from the majors.

Way hit .277 in 119 games with two home runs and 52 RBIs. He also stole 27 bases and had an OBP of .349. He threw two players out at third and home in the three games I saw him play, plus he made a diving catch and tracked a ball down in the gap. Way has the potential to be an above-average defensive outfielder who could be a potential lead-off hitter in three to four seasons.

Two more outfielders that caught my attention were Brandon Bayardi and Mike Fish. Bayardi played well before getting called up to Triple-A in August and put up some pretty solid numbers in 63 games for the 66ers.

Bayardi batted .302 with nine HRs and 36 RBIs. After being promoted, he hit a respectable .278 with one HR and five RBIs in 18 at-bats. His numbers were deserving of the jump to Triple-A and he will probably start 2016 in Salt Lake, which means if he has success there you could see him in the majors sometime late next season. More than likely though it will be 2017 before you will see Bayardi in an Angels uniform.

Fish on the other hand is a solid minor leaguer and a great team-oriented player, but there is not much potential to see Fish in an Angels uniform any time soon, if ever. His leadership skills are strong, which always helps. Fish hit .287 with two HRs and 34 RBIs. However, he does have the potential to be a leader if he can continue to progress on the field.

The final two hitters worth mentioning are Cody Eaves and Rafael Baldoquin, who could be the middle infielders of the future for the Los Angeles Angels. Eaves is an average fielding second baseman with some pop. In 134 games, Eaves hit only .248 but swatted 11 HRs and drove in 71 RBIs, good for second on the team in both categories. He will need to improve on his 17 errors in the field at second base and also raise his average in order to continue to progress toward the majors.

Baldoquin had a tough first year, missing half of the season with various injuries. When he did play, he showed signs of the enormous potential that led to the Angels putting up a signing fee and giving him a multi-year deal. He is a slick fielder (Erick Aybar-esque) and has a strong arm.

As a hitter, Baldoquin got some big hits in the three games I saw him play, but he finished the season with a .237 average with one HR and 27 runs batted in playing in 77 games. He is definitely three to four years away from wearing an Angels uniform, but he definitely has potential and according to his manager Denny Hocking, Baldoquin has a great work ethic and an enormous upside.

As for the pitching, I did not see too many prospects besides Blackford. Two relievers caught my eye, Geoff Broussard and Michael Smith.

Broussard had a solid season posting a 2-2 record with a sparkling 2.42 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. Even more impressive was his 72 strikeouts in only 44 innings of work. Broussard did give up the tying run, blowing the save and a potential Weaver victory in his second rehab start, but you could still see his potential.

Michael Smith put up even more impressive numbers, going 6-1 with a 1.96 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP in 36 innings of work. Smith “only” had 36 strikeouts (one per inning), but only walked five batters and gave up 25 hits for the season. Both

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could end up on the major league roster in two years or less if they continue to post these kind of numbers, but again we will have to see how they do against Double-A and Triple-A pitching.

The final pitcher worth mentioning is the one the Angels feel has the most potential, enough to add him to their 40-man major league roster, Victor Alcantara. Honestly, I do not see what the Angels do in this kid. He does possess close to a 95 mph fastball, but he is wild and he got lit up regularly when he did throw the ball in the strike zone.

Alcantara posted a 5.63 ERA with a 7-12 record. He threw 136 innings, giving up 152 hits and walking 58 for a 1.54 WHIP. The lone bright spot was his 125 strikeouts, but he still seems to be at least two years away from even sniffing a major league mound. However, pitchers can be deceiving early in their careers, then all of the sudden something clicks and they skyrocket into the majors. Hopefully this will be the case with Alcantara, but we will have to see.

All in all, there were definitely some bright spots in Single-A for the Los Angeles Angels, but as far as any players that could help the club in 2016, I did not see any. Only time will tell, but it was still fun to watch these guys knowing that one day I may be able to say I saw them play in the minors when they are big league stars.