The LA Angels have some good talent in San Bernardino

MIAMI, FL - MAY 28: Matt Shoemaker
MIAMI, FL - MAY 28: Matt Shoemaker /

The LA Angels have been bagged on for the past five years or more of not having much talent in their minor league system, but Angels general manager Billy Eppler is trying to change that notion one player at a time.

This past week I spent three days watching the LA Angels Single-A team, the Inland Empire 66’ers play.  While most everyone in attendance this past week in San Bernardino were there more for the fact that Mike Trout was there to rehab his torn ligament in his thumb, I was there for multiple reasons.

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Not only did I want to see how Mike Trout was progressing, I also wanted to see how the Angels past two #1 draft picks, Matt Thaiss (2016) and Taylor Ward (2015) were doing.  In addition I also wanted to see if there were any hidden gems on the team, (which there definitely are). I was pleased to have the opportunity to check these guys out myself, after I had heard so much about them.

First of all Matt Thaiss is a very talented player that we will most likely see in Anaheim within the next two years.  Do not let his diminutive stature (listed as 6’0 but most likely about 5’10) fool you, this kid can play.  Thaiss was drafted by the Angels in the first round in the 2016 Amateur Draft out of the University of Virginia.


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Many Angel fans were shaking their heads as Thaiss was listed as a catcher, having played that position in college and high school.  However, Thaiss has been converted to a first baseman and has done so seamlessly.  Thaiss defense is already better than many players who have playing the position all their lives.  He made numerous highlight reel plays in the three game I watched. Thaiss made diving stops both to his left and his right to rob opposing players of hits.  Thaiss also made three of four great scoops and a couple of nice stretches to help out his infielders.

Not to mention Thaiss at the plate is hitting .265 with eight homers and 49 RBI’s for the 66’ers in 85 games.  Last season he hit .292 with homers and 43 RBI’s in 67 games for the Angels rookie league team the Orem Owlz and also their low Single-A team the Burlington Bees.

“Matt is learning about the grind of a 140 game season which many first year players have a tough time with and he has done very well,” 66’ers manager Chad Tracy said. “Being that he is going through all that and making a position change, which he has taken to and looks great over there. Where he is at right now he is still in position to have a good month and have a really nice season. Matt still has some things that he can clean up which he will. For a guy at this level in his first full season he is doing just fine.”

Thaiss will now get a new challenge as the Angels called him up to Double-A on Monday night, and Thaiss went one for four with an RBI in his debut Tuesday with the Mobile Bay Bears. Thaiss joins a host of former 66’er teammates in Mobile including outfielder Brendon Sanger who was called up Sunday and pitcher Jaime Barria who was called up in early June after being named to the Single-A All-Star team.

“I think I have come a long way at first base from last season after I was kind of just thrown over there.  The biggest part of that is my manager Chad Tracy, the things he has been able to show me from playing most of his career there has really helped me and it is starting to show now that all the hard work we put in day-in and day-out is paying off and I’m getting more and more comfortable each day,” Thaiss said. “At the plate I’m just trying to go up there and put a good swing on the ball and with guys like Brendon Sanger and Jose Rojas driving in runs it really makes it easy to focus on taking good swings on the ball and trying to get on base.”

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Angels pitcher Matt Shoemaker who was rehabbing in Inland Empire for the 66’ers last week was very complementary of both Thaiss and also Taylor Ward.

“Matt Thaiss and Taylor Ward have tremendous potential,” Shoemaker said. “Not to take anything away from the other guys down here as everyone has potential. Thaiss and Ward though have great potential and they are well put together and are fun to watch.”

That bring us to the Angels 2015 #1 pick Taylor Ward.  Ward played for the 66’ers all of last season and fared pretty well hitting .249 with 10 homers and 49 RBI’s for the 66’ers in 2016.  Ward then played well in the Arizona Fall League hitting .283 with nine RBI’s in 16 games.

With all these positives many expected Ward to be promoted to Double-A in 2017, but then the injury bug hit him as he suffered a strained oblique muscle which kept him out of action until May 3rd.  So Ward finds himself back in San Bernardino again.

Ward has taken it in stride and has continued to try and improve his game both offensively and defensively. So far in 48 games Ward has hit .242 with five homers and 25 RBI’s.  Not spectacular numbers, but Tracy still has seen growth from Ward this season.

“Taylor has improved on every aspect of his defense.  Since he has come back from the oblique thing he has blocked the ball better, he is calling a better game and his awareness of the game have all improved tremendously which is a big step for him,” Tracy said. “Offensively he actually has improved too. We don’t just look at the numbers, he takes a very consistent at-bat and stays within the strike zone  which is important for young hitters.”

Ward will continue to improve and will eventually get the call to Double-A most likely before the end of this season. Ward just takes it all in stride.

“I feel great don’t feel the injury any more and just trying to get better every day,” Ward said. “If I’m down here or I get moved up it’s fine. I know what I’ve got to work on to get moved up, I have got to hit so that’s what I’m going to try and do the rest of the way and we will see what happens.”

While Thaiss and Ward get all the hype of being the #1 draft picks there are some other hidden gems on the 66’ers roster that caught my eye. The first player was outfielder Brendon Sanger, who also just got called up to Double-A Sunday night just before I interviewed him.  Sanger is listed as a 6’0 195 lb. outfielder who was drafted by the Angels in the 4th round of the 2015 out of Florida Atlantic University.

Sanger played last season in Burlington and did not do so well hitting just .230 with four homers and 39 RBI’s.  However after a cold April, Sanger seem to heat up along with the weather in San Bernardino and currently has a .277 batting average hitting 10 home runs and driving in 42 runs.  For Sanger the chance to be moved up to Double-A was his goal for the season.

“I started out the year slow, but I worked really hard with the hitting coaches trying to see the ball better and it has really paid off,” Sanger said. “I just want to drive the ball better this year and drive in runs when I possibly can, be a big RBI guy and draw a lot of walks which is a big part of my game.”

Sanger, in the three games I watched him play hit two home runs and drove in six runs and he seems to have very strong potential and his manager also agrees with this assessment.

“Brandon is doing a terrific job, it’s been a huge turnaround as he was really strugglinghitting under .200 into the second week of May,” Tracy said. “But he has worked really hard with our hitting coach and they really put their nose to the grindstone and worked on a couple of things. To say he has taken off since then would be an understatement. He has hit in the high .300’s the last month and a half, he is up to 10 home runs now and has driven in 40+ plus runs. He has been absolutely terrific to go along with what he already has which is tremendous plate discipline. His success is well-earned and well-deserved.”

The final player that caught my eye is sort of your proverbial underdog story  and that is third baseman Jose Rojas. Rojas was a 36th round draft pick out of tiny Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California. Rojas has torn the cover off the ball since he arrived last June in Orem for the Angels rookie league team.

In 59 games last year for Orem, Rojas hit a .308 with five homers and 31 RBI’s. He has not stopped since he got to San Bernardino either this year as Rojas is hitting .322 with seven homers and 49 RBI’s  in 76 games so far this season. His numbers were enough to get Rojas selected to the Single-A All-Star team last month.

Rojas hit two homers and drove in five runs in the games I saw last week and he also made a couple of outstanding plays defensively.  You will most likely see him get called up to Double-A before too long as well.

“I just come out here and try to do the best job I possibly can each day and to the trust the process,” Ramos said. “Even though I was a later pick we all have the same opportunity to chase our goal and make it to the top level possible and I trying to make the best of my opportunity. I’m just trying to be consistent day in and day out and give it my best and everything else will take care of itself.”

Next: Matt Thaiss gets promoted

Last season I was to see Keynan Middleton in the season while covering one of these rehab assignments and look where he is now.  So you never know what future star you might see when you watch the Inland Empire 66’ers.  Check them out.  See tomorrow’s stars today as the Future Is Now.