Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camps, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com will be visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Coming off of their worst season since 1999, the Angels have a solid position-player nucleus of Mike Trout, Andrelton Simmons, Kole Calhoun, and a bunch of question marks. The farm system lacks a Top 100 Prospect for the second straight preseason and can't offer any immediate help.
The Angels have sat at or near the bottom of various farm system talent rankings for five years running. But they see some in-house talent beginning to percolate and think the system is on the upswing after years of giving up first-round picks as free-agent compensation (six times from 2005-13) while also getting little out of their international program.
"I've definitely seen some progress," said director of Minor League operations Mike LaCassa, who has been with the Angels since January 2012. "Two good examples are last year's Minor League player and pitcher of the year for us, Mike Hermosillo and Keynan Middleton.
"They were taken in our second Draft under [former GM] Jerry [Dipoto] in 2013, Keynan in the 3rd round and Mike in the 28th. They weren't living up to their potential and then in 2016, it clicks. They're good lessons for our department, that it's a process and how long it takes."
More of a star in basketball than baseball at Lane (Ore.) CC, Middleton took off after a move to the bullpen last year and started showing an upper-90s fastball and flashing a wipeout slider. Hermosillo, who gave up a football scholarship from Illinois to turn pro, began hitting the ball with authority in 2016 while continuing to impress with his plus speed.
Another positive development is a 2016 Draft crop that could be the Angels' best since 2009, when they landed Randal Grichuk, Trout, Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards with their first four picks and Patrick Corbin with their second-rounder. Last year's effort included seven players on MLBPipeline.com's Angels Top 30 Prospects list: first baseman Matt Thaiss (first round), outfielders Brandon Marsh (second) and Troy Montgomery (eighth), shortstops Nonie Williams (third) and Connor Justus (fifth), and right-handers Chris Rodriguez (fourth) and Cole Duensing (sixth). Second baseman Jordan Zimmerman (seventh) and outfielder Brennan Lund (11th) are two more position players who bear watching.
"Last year in particular, we got a lot of athletic position players into our system," LaCassa said. "They are physical and have certain tools and the approach we look for. We also got some young starting pitchers with the biomechanics we look for. We've very excited about what this group could be."
Outside of No. 2 overall pick Nick Senzel (Reds), Thaiss was the best hitter and had the best offensive approach among college players in the 2016 Draft. After batting .292/.361/.462 and reaching Class A in his pro debut, he has continued to swing a sweet left-handed bat in big league camp. The 21-year-old drew walks in his first two plate appearances and has gone 5-for-11 (.455) since.
"He's probably the best hitting prospect we've had since Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun, and those players don't come around every year," LaCassa said. "Not every system has a hitter that accomplished, who has as much upside as Thaiss. He's also making tremendous strides at first base. He's more athletic than people give him credit for, and he's making more rapid progress than we expected."
Signed out of Panama for $60,000 in 2013, right-hander Jaime Barria made his full-season debut last year and earned midseason All-Star recognition in the Class A Midwest League as a 19-year-old. Working with a lively low-90s fastball, a deceptive changeup and a developing curveball, he went 8-6 with a 3.85 ERA and a 78/21 K/BB ratio in 117 innings. The Angels love his strike-throwing ability and believe he'll miss more bats as he adds strength.
"He has plus control and feel for three good pitches," LaCassa said. "With his ability to throw his curveball and changeup and command his fastball, the ingredients are there to have a breakout season. He's a mature young man who continues to focus on the process and continues to get stronger."
Another promising international signee is Venezuelan middle infielder Leonardo Rivas, who's one of the fastest runners and best defenders in the system and has more than held his own with the bat so far. He hit a combined .289/.413/.379 with 26 steals in 59 games between the Rookie-level Dominican Summer and Arizona leagues in 2016.
"At first glance, some may say he's undersized, but he's strong for his size," LaCassa said. "He has an unbelievable approach at the plate. He does not chase pitches. He makes solid contact. He's an above-average runner and an above-average defender. He has a good arm and good instincts. He's someone to keep an eye on."
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.