When Matt Thaiss was drafted in the first round of the 2016 Draft by the Angels out of the University of Virginia, it was thought he would be the kind of advanced college hitter who would move quickly up the Minor League ladder. The college catcher-turned-pro first baseman certainly lived up to advanced billing on that front, reaching Double-A in his first full season.
"I wouldn't say that was a goal," said Thaiss, the Angels' No. 3 prospect. "Everyone wants to move up and they want to move quickly. I try not to set goals, whether they be statistical or getting to certain places at certain times. I kind of just let the season ride out and I was lucky enough to get up to Double-A and experience the competition there."
He's now experiencing the competition in the Arizona Fall League with the Scottsdale Scorpions. Some might see 133 games and over 500 at-bats in the first time playing every day as a pro as enough, but Thaiss was more than happy to extend the year.
"It's an awesome achievement," Thaiss said. "Everyone knows it's a long year and everyone gets tired during the year, but to be able to come here and play in this outstanding league with the top prospects pretty much throughout baseball, it's a great honor. Everyone is very proud to be here."
And while Thaiss is pleased about reaching Double-A, he knows there is still plenty of work for him to do in order to get him ready for the big leagues. Some of that is defensive. Primarily a catcher at Virginia, Thaiss did see some time at first in college, but he wasn't asked to commit to it until the Angels drafted him. Every day, the 22-year-old feels he's improving that side of his game.
"I think it's been great," Thaiss said. "It's been about a year and a half now that I've been full-time over there. It just comes with reps, more groundballs and more game experience, it's just going to help me out."
With the move to first can come a different set of expectations offensively. There are power and run-production demands often associated with the position, but it's something that Thaiss tries not to worry about too much.
"You could say yes, everyone wants a first baseman who can drive the ball over the fence any time they want," Thaiss said. "But my biggest focus is defense over there and whatever happens at the plate, happens."
What did happen is that even with the move to the upper levels of the system, Thaiss did not stray from his gameplan. An on-base machine at Virginia, he has kept it up as a pro. The left-handed hitter posted a .375 on-base percentage in 2017 thanks to his 77 walks while hitting a combined .274. Perhaps even more impressive is that he hit .292 with a .412 OBP after the move to Double-A. Not that Thaiss was satisified with his production.
"Obviously, I didn't have the year that I wanted to," Thaiss said. "Everybody looks back on their years and wants to do better in certain categories and this or that. I was very happy that I stuck with who I am, a guy who sees a lot of pitches, works counts and gets on base. I didn't really deviate from that too much.
"At times when I did struggle a lot, that's when I deviated away from that. Knowing the ballplayer I am, I've always said I'm not going to hit 40 or 50 home runs a year. That's just not who I am. But if I can get on base four out of 10 times and hit 30 doubles, that's my game. I'm going to try to do that and I think I stuck to that pretty well."
His time in the AFL will allow him to continue to hone those skills against a higher level of competition. After 49 games in the Southern League in 2017, it might not take his bat too much longer to be ready for Los Angeles. Standing in his way currently, however, are C.J. Cron at first, who is under control until 2020, and Albert Pujols at designated hitter with his 10-year deal running out after the 2021 season.
"You cross that bridge when you get there," Thaiss said. "That's my last focus right now. My focus right now if being out here with these guys, then when we get back into Spring Training and the season, it will all play out."
Angels hitters in the Fall League
Troy Montgomery, OF -- Montgomery was the Angels' eighth-round pick out of Ohio State in the 2016 Draft, and he reached Double-A in his first full season. The left-handed hitter finished with a combined .271/.358/.413 line with 15 steals and has seen time in all three outfield spots. The Angels' No. 20 prospect is now making up for some lost time due to an ankle injury during the season.
Taylor Ward, C -- The Angels took Ward out of Fresno State in the first round in 2015 and while he's been a bit up and down in his pro career, he did reach Double-A in 2017. Unfortunately, the Angels No. 10 prospect's second AFL stint this fall was cut short after just one game due to a throwing shoulder impingement.
Wade Wass, C -- Sent to the AFL to replace Ward, Wass only played in 59 Double-A games in 2017, spending the final month and change of the season on the disabled list. He did homer 11 times in 191 at-bats and was a Southern League All-Star, though he also struck out in more than 30 percent of those ABs. Not bad for a non-drafted free agent.
Angels pitchers in the Fall League
Nathan Bates, RHP -- It's taken a while for the 6-foot-8 Bates, a 15th-rounder out of Georgia State in the 2015 Draft, to get going, but he did finally reach full-season ball in 2017 and proceeded to quickly pitch his way from the Midwest League to the Class A Advanced California League. While he did struggle with Inland Empire (6.53 ERA), he did strike out 10.6 per nine innings with eight saves across 41 relief outings.
Samil De Los Santos, RHP -- The 6-foot-4 Dominican right-hander began his career in the Astros organization, but was released by Houston in March 2016. The Angels signed him a few days later, though he only threw 16 1/3 innings that season. He spent most of the 2017 campaign in the California League, striking out 10.4 per nine for the year and saving 12 games in 14 attempts.
Adam Hofacket, RHP -- A starter for three years at California Baptist, Hofacket has been strictly a reliever since the Angels drafted him in the 10th round of the 2015 season. He pitched at three levels in 2017, and while he struggled a bit in Triple-A, his combined 3.49 ERA and 4.77 K/BB ratio show he's close to knocking on the big league door.