The Past Is Prologue
Growing up in Southern California in the 1990s, Billy Eppler watched as the Angels debuted Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds, Troy Percival, Garret Anderson and Darin Erstad in consecutive seasons, laying the foundation for the franchise’s first World Series title.
As a Rockies scout living in Laguna Beach in the early 2000s, Eppler saw the Angels produce Francisco Rodriguez, Bengie Molina, Ervin Santana and Ramon Ortiz out of a fruitful Latin American program.
And as a Yankees front office executive in the late 2000s, Eppler watched as the Angels put together arguably the best draft of the 21st century in 2009 when they selected Mike Trout, Garrett Richards, Patrick Corbin, Tyler Skaggs and Randal Grichuk with five of their first six picks.
So, when Eppler interviewed for the Angels’ general manager job in 2015, returning the franchise to that rich tradition of homegrown talent was at the forefront of his mind.
“Those are things I brought up with our owner (Arte Moreno) and our team president John Carpino, and then once I got the job I was bringing that up with more individuals at that executive leadership level,” Eppler said. “(I was) just saying the backbone of this organization. . . when they’ve experienced success, has been through high-level player development and high-level scouting.”
“I think it’s pretty clear, especially in Latin America, that there’s been a renewed investment on our part,” Horowitz said. “With different front offices, different GMs, there are different methods to how you procure talent. There’s definitely been a huge emphasis on investing in young talent.”
The Angels’ renewed investment internationally was on display in December. After Major League Baseball penalized the Braves for international signing violations by freeing Kevin Maitan, the No. 1 international prospect in 2016, among others, from the organization, it was the Angels who set the pace for the pursuit and ultimately signed Maitan, as well as fellow former Braves shortstop prospect Livan Soto.
“That memo comes out from MLB and I’m on the phone with Maitan’s agent within the next hour,” Eppler said. “(International scouting director) Carlos Gomez is jumping on a flight to Venezuela immediately, and I mean immediately. We’re there with those guys and talking to them, and Carlos is then running over to see Soto. Those guys were deep in it.”
The Angels, buoyed by their immediate attention and effort, signed Maitan for $2.2 million and Soto for $850,000.
For their masterstroke, the Angels signed Japanese twoway star Shohei Ohtani, giving them a premium prospectand potential franchise cornerstone.
Ohtani and Maitan are a big part of the Angels’ system renewal, but they are not alone. The addition of athletic high school outfielders Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh as Eppler draft picks has given the Angels two premium, athletic talents.
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Now, the Angels can look at their system and see players at every level who have a legitimate chance of one day helping in the majors, something that was not true for the franchise for the better part of previous three or four years.
"We’ve seen that clearly from what the Astros have done, what the Yankees are doing, even big market teams now, if you can develop that talent pipeline that can come up and fill positions for you, it just makes the whole operation run so much more smoothly,” Horowitz said. “If you can use free agency to supplement your core as opposed to build a core through free agency, it’s much more economically feasible.”
They’ve also managed to improve their system while keeping their big league team intact, and even add to it by using their enhanced prospect depth to trade for Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler.
There is a still a lot of time before the final impact of the Angels’ current system is known, and plenty could still go awry. Five of the Angels’ top seven prospects have yet to play above Class A, and some are bound to get hurt or flame out.
Still, the Angels are in a better place than in years past.
“I do tend to prefer the avenue of letting (prospects) kind of grow on your own if they can,” Eppler said. “There’s an old school saying: ‘A tomato grown in your garden tastes better than a tomato you got at your store.’
“Even if it doesn’t, it really feels that way.”