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Once mighty Angels farm system has slipped

ANAHEIM—You don't associate the Angels with last place in anything these days, and yet there they are, at the bottom of the chart listing how much each team spent to sign its picks in the first 10 rounds of last June's draft:

30. Los Angeles Angels: $1.7 million.

"I was shocked to see that," Eddie Bane said.

Eddie Bane
Bane is not a neutral voice in this matter, neither blogger nor Baseball America analyst. He is the Angels' scouting director, and he is so sincere in his sentiment that he repeats it.

"That is shocking to me," he said.

Aside from that last-place ranking, however, the 2008 draft was typical of recent ones for the Angels—forfeiture of a first-round pick, and failure to sign multiple picks in the top rounds.

The Angels position themselves as an organization built upon player development, preferring to fill their needs by signing free agents rather than trading prospects.

Their record speaks for itself, as the only team to win four division championships in the past five seasons. They won 100 games last season and spent $123 million on player payroll, both club records.

And yet the inability to replenish the organization with top picks could be taking a toll. Baseball America ranked the Angels' minor league talent as the best in the game in 2005, but that ranking dropped to 10th last year and figures to descend further this year.

In five drafts under Bane, the Angels have not had a first-round pick three times.

The Angels have forfeited first-round picks for signing Orlando Cabrera, Jeff Weaver, Gary Matthews Jr. and Torii Hunter and additional picks for signing Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar, Hector Carrasco and Justin Speier—though they got supplemental picks for losing Troy Percival, Paul Byrd and Adam Kennedy.

In those five drafts, they also failed to sign eight players drafted within the first 10 rounds.

They have delivered pitchers, catchers and infielders to the major leagues, but they have not produced an impact slugger since Troy Glaus in 1998, or an everyday outfielder since Darin Erstad in 1996.

It is more than coincidence, then, that they have spent $228 million within the past five years on Matthews, Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Guillen.

Fine With Forfeiting First-Rounders

Bane said he is far from upset with the loss of the first-round picks.

"We've got Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter for it," Bane said. "I'm perfectly fine with that."

Eddie Bane (left) and Trevor Bell
And the Angels' farm system is chugging along nicely, he said, even without the chance to draft the cream of the prospect classes. So long as the Angels keep winning, Bane won't get one of the first few draft selections, whether the team signs a free agent or keeps its pick.

"I don't use that as an excuse," Bane said. "We understand we're not going to see Pedro Alvarez, (Troy) Tulowitzki or (Evan) Longoria.

"The only time we can see those guys is out of high school. We have to recognize them three years before the other guys. We think we have, when we get (Hank) Conger and (Trevor) Reckling and guys like that."

Conger, a catcher selected from Huntington Beach (Calif.) High with the 25th overall pick in 2006, hit .303/.333/.517 at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga last season, although he was limited to a DH role as he rehabilitated a shoulder injury.

Reckling, a lefthander selected from St. Benedict's (N.J.) Prep in the eighth round in 2007, went 10-7, 3.38 at low Class A Cedar Rapids last season.

As the likes of Conger, Reckling, center fielder Peter Bourjos, lefty Will Smith and righthanders David Herndon, Sean O'Sullivan and Jordan Walden advance from the lower levels, Bane said, the system should be in good shape. Five of the Angels' six affiliates advanced to the playoffs last season, with Double-A Arkansas winning the Texas League championship despite a 62-78 record.

"I think we've been able to fill the organization at every level, except Double-A, with prospects," Bane said, "and next year those guys will finally start reaching Double-A. That will make me feel better about the whole thing.

"We've got really good scouts. We're really good at scouting. We're not really good at P.R. I read about all these catchers . . . and Conger's name isn't even mentioned. I don't think we would trade Conger for any minor league catcher in the game right now."

All About Signability

The Angels have invested heavily in Asia and Latin America, so their player development is not limited to the draft alone. Yet Bane said the Angels can and must do better in the draft.

"We need to do a better job with signability," he said. "I've come down pretty hard on our guys on that."

If the Angels lose a top pick by signing, say, C.C. Sabathia, there are no quarrels for Bane. But if the Angels continue to lose out on signing top draftees, he said, that would be cause for concern.

"I don't care for any excuses," he said. "We shouldn't miss."

That brings us back to the 2008 draft, the one in which the Angels spent the least of any team on picks in the top 10 rounds. They forfeited their first-round pick and did not sign outfielders Zach Cone, selected as a supplemental third-rounder, and Khiry Cooper, selected in the fifth round.

Bane said Cone opted to attend Georgia even after the Angels met his first and second asking price. Cooper chose to play football at Nebraska.

"That was on me," Bane said. "I should have recognized a kid with a scholarship to the University of Nebraska in football—no matter what he said—it was going to take more than fifth-round money."

This is the lesson, one Bane hopes to reinforce to himself and to all his scouts: "You can't just ask a guy one time, 'Will you sign for fourth-round money?' and take that as signability."

Bane wants the Angels to talk to players—and parents, friends, school coaches, youth coaches, and anyone else who might have insight on how a kid might make a five-figure or six-figure decision.

"That's what Tom Kotchman is so good at," Bane said. "He's probably the best area scout I've ever seen. He just digs and digs."

That emphasis might lead the Angels to select more players from Florida, where Kotchman is based, and from Southern California, where the club runs youth teams that enable them to get to know prospects in depth.

"We're hardly ever going to have a problem with signability with kids in Southern California," Bane said.

Next June's draft could offer a dramatic test of the Angels' newfound emphasis on signability. The Angels could be in line for a haul of picks, depending on how many among five free agents—Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez, Garret Anderson, Jon Garland and Darren Oliver—are offered arbitration but sign elsewhere.

"It's pretty easy to say," Bane said, "we won't be in that spot this year."