ELI: Who is the top prospect in the Angels farm?
ELI: Who from the LoA/HighA Leagues is looking like they could turn into something?
STEPHEN: I think Rancho Cucamonga shortstop Hainley Statia is underrated. I ranked him #6 last November on my FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects list. Consider him the rough equivalent of Orlando Cabrera. With Cedar Rapids, I'll go out on a limb and name Warner Madrigal. He was once a power hitter prospect in the lower minors, but after multiple hand injuries and a general lapse of plate discipline, the Angels converted him last year into a relief pitcher. He's always had a power arm. From what I saw in spring training, he throws in the mid-90s and has a decent slider. The Angels teach all their young pitchers the changeup, so he'll mix in that pitch eventually. It may take him a while due to inexperience, but give him 4-5 years and maybe he'll be in a big-league uniform.
ELI: Who is the best prospect to come out of the Angels system?
STEPHEN: Ever?! Probably Tim Salmon. In this decade, you have plenty of candidates -- John Lackey, Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields to name a few. I think Casey Kotchman and Howie Kendrick will be special too. Jered Weaver as well.
ELI: When did you start doing this? Why?
STEPHEN: A long story. The short version ... In 1998 I started helping out the Angels' Cal League affiliate which at the time was in Lake Elsinore. I went out to visit Cedar Rapids and got peppered with questions about the players that had moved up the ladder from there to Lake Elsinore. I realized there was an interest not just by Angels fandom but also fans in the affiliates' towns, as well as the players' parents scattered around the world. The Internet was just starting to emerge as a popular technology amongst the masses, and to me seemed like a good solution. That was back in the days when modems were still slow dial-ups and web sites were mostly text. We've come a long way since then, and FutureAngels.com has always been ahead of the curve with photos, audio interviews, and video highlight clips. Now I'm doing a semi-monthly podcast. All these are tools for helping to bring Angels minor league baseball to those with an interest. I fell in love with minor league baseball ten years ago, and now I'm totally bored by going to a major league game. When you're one of 2,000 people in the stands, it's a much more intimate experience than when you're one of 40,000 people in the stands. And in the minors, if you're willing to volunteer your time and resources, the team will embrace you and make you part of the family. There's no bigger thrill than knowing you played a small part in helping along a young man to a major league career. I have plenty of friends in the big leagues now, and friends who are players' parents. Every once in a while, I'll hear from a player or parent who left the organization long ago. That's special to know they remember you.
ELI: Did you play baseball growing up?
Not really. My family couldn't afford to pay for Little League and the gear and what not. But I was an avid Angels fan, and saw a game in Anaheim Stadium when it opened in 1966. We had seats behind home plate for a Sunday day game. There were maybe 5,000 people in the stands. It's changed a bit since then. :-)
ELI: What kind of stress is put on a top prospect who is stuck in AAA?
STEPHEN: Personally, I think any stress is self-inflicted. It's different for every player. A guy who's 32 in Triple-A is different from a guy who's 22 in Triple-A. There are guys who float around for years in Triple-A, going from team to team. Once a player has six seasons of professional experience, he can take his minor league free agency if his club doesn't put him on the 40-man roster. So there are guys who each year float from organization to organization, looking for a place to play and a shot at touching the big leagues. For a top prospect like Brandon Wood, or even for a kid like Jeff Mathis who's only 24 yet is in his third Triple-A season, they have plenty of time. Looking at Mathis, I remind people that Jason Varitek wasn't a regular major league catcher until he was 26. Varitek was drafted at 23 after graduating late from college. Stress is different for everyone. Some thrive from it, others collapse, and there are others who just cruise along having a good time.
ELI: Is players morale different in AA and AAA because they are so close to the bigs then in LoA and HighA? How?
STEPHEN: For the most part, I don't think "morale" is an issue. Sure, they'd all like to be in the big leagues, but nobody gets depressed or throws a temper tantrum. The Angels teach a team philosophy and stress that it's all about what's best for the parent club. For example, Curtis Pride, who's 38, is in Double-A this year so he can continue to play every day while three prospects play every day in the Triple-A outfield. I don't think morale is an issue for him; in fact, he's an example of what a team player is all about. Other organizations may have head cases, but the Angels seem to largely avoid those personalities.
ELI: Where do the Angels have a lot of depth? Where do they not have a lot?
STEPHEN: In general, their depth is in pitching, middle-infielders, and catchers. I find that a lot of fans misunderstand why middle-infield depth is so important. Middle infielders are generally the most athletic position players on the roster, and therefore have the flexibility to move to other positions. Guys who play the corner outfield positions and the infield corners generally don't have such flexibility. The Angels have tinkered with moving Erick Aybar to center field. They recently moved Brandon Wood to third base. Howie Kendrick got moved to first base when he was called up last year to get his bat in the lineup. There's been some thought over the years to moving Sean Rodriguez behind the plate (which I don't think will happen). The Angels could probably use more power hitters, but their style of play really is more about advancing and scoring runners, what I call "Contactball." They're not going to sit around waiting for a long ball, although they certainly have power hitter prospects in Casey Kotchman, Brandon Wood, Kendry Morales and a couple other guys at the upper levels. They're so deep in pitching that they don't need to score 6-7 runs a game to win. If they get to the 7th with a three-run lead, they're probably going to win. Who cares if it's 4-1 or 10-7? A win is a win.