Homegrown talent abundant for Angels

When Opening Day in Anaheim rolls around, odds are good the Angels will have an all-homegrown infield.

We're not just talking about going around the horn. It includes the starting pitcher and whichever catcher Manager Mike Scioscia decides to trot out, Jeff Mathis or Mike Napoli. In fact, if things go well against the Minnesota Twins, Scott Shields and Kevin Jepsen, both homegrown, might be the only other guys who pitch.

That's eight of the 12 Angels players in a game, products of the farm. It's almost quaint.

It reminds some people of an earlier era and a not-too-distant locale.

"I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and it makes me think of [Steve] Garvey, [Davey] Lopes, [Ron] Cey and [Bill] Russell," Angels farm director Abe Flores said. "They ran that infield out for a long time, through the playoffs and the World Series. Now, a whole generation of kids is growing up with these Angels."

That's true, but will their younger brothers and sisters? If recent evaluations are to be believed, the Angels' talent pipeline is starting to clog. This week, ESPN.com baseball analyst Keith Law, a former major league front-office executive, ranked the Angels' farm system No. 22 from among baseball's 30 teams. Baseball America ranked them 25th.

A year ago, Law had them ranked three spots lower.

Don't think the Angels' development people haven't noticed the diminishing respect their players are receiving.

"Absolutely, our players should see it as a slap in the face. People think we're in the bottom third of the league," Flores said. "We think that's people from the outside talking. Now, we have to go out on the field and change it."

It hasn't always been this way. From 2003 to '07, Baseball America ranked the Angels no worse than fifth.

It's not as though the emphasis has changed. Scioscia was an All-Star catcher in that Dodgers' infield that Flores remembers, so he knows how crucial a strong farm system is. Tony Reagins had Flores' job before he became general manager, so he gets it. Angels owner Arte Moreno still talks about the team's farm system. He still likes saving bushels of money by harvesting homegrown talent.

So, what gives? For one thing, the Angels emptied a lot of their talent into the major leagues. That's a good problem.

It takes a while to reload in baseball, particularly for a team that favors drafting high-school players. Many of the team's top prospects remain at the lower rungs of the minor-league ladder.

Infielder Mike Trout is 18, catcher Hank Conger turns 22 this week and pitcher Trevor Reckling is 20 and could open next season at Triple-A. Those three are probably the Angels' most talented young players.

Another thing changed: Reagins moved into the office formerly occupied by Bill Stoneman, who parted with prospects as easily as Ebenezer Scrooge doled out charity.

Reagins has proven slightly more willing to part with prospects to plug a hole. He shipped three prospects, Alex Torres, Matt Sweeney and Sean Rodriguez, to Tampa Bay for pitcher Scott Kazmir in August.
So, should Angels fans be worried? Yeah, probably.

The rest of the division Is making things uncomfortable at every level. The Oakland Athletics have always invested their scant resources in development. Playing in their dump of a stadium with a payroll south of $50 million, what choice do they have if they don't want to become like the Kansas City Royals?

Now, the Texas Rangers suddenly are the darlings of the scouting world. Texas has had the No. 1 system in baseball two years running, according to Law. The Angels probably wouldn't argue. They had to face Neftali Feliz's 98-mph fastball. They've heard rumblings about switch-hitting slugger Justin Smoak.

The Angels also have a good idea how talented Oakland's young pitching is. Scioscia called it the best group of young arms in the league.

Apparently, the rest of the AL West didn't enjoy the latter half of the previous decade, when they couldn't outspend or out-develop the Angels.

Now, we get to see whether any of this means something in the standings come September.

"It has to translate to the major-league level or otherwise it doesn't mean anything," Flores said.

Even if the gap does disappear this summer, shouldn't the Angels get a little credit for Kendry Morales, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Brandon Wood? Who knows, maybe one day that will have the ring of Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.