By Stu Matthews, Angels Nation managing editor
It’s time to change Jose Rojas’ uniform number — No. 80, the number of a football wide receiver — to a lower number more fitting for a major league professional baseball player.
Because that’s what Rojas is, as of Saturday.
Rojas has been knocking base hits all the way from Anaheim High School to Fullerton JC, to Vanguard University to being drafted by the Angels in the 36th round.
Then there were six years in the minor leagues.
Rojas has finally knocked his way into the major leagues, by making it nearly impossible for manager Joe Maddon to keep him off the Halos’ 26-man Opening Day roster with a red-hot bat and a positive attitude that resonated with the coaching staff.
Maddon informed Rojas on Saturday morning that he would be promoted to the majors at last, officially when the Angels take on the Chicago White Sox on April 1.
“A lot of times you have to tell guys that they’re being sent down, and then you get this opportunity sometimes to tell guys that they’re here,” Maddon said.
“It’s pretty surreal,” said Rojas, 28, who was born and bred in Anaheim. He’ll now play in the majors for his favorite team. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
Rookies at 28 years old are few in MLB, but “don’t worry about the birth certificate,” Maddon said. “This guy is a really good baseball player.”
Rojas’ left-handed swing will fit in nicely off the Angels’ bench, where he’s expected to fill in at second base whenever starter David Fletcher needs time off — or when shortstop Jose Iglesias or third baseman Anthony Rendon need a day off, Rojas will fill in at second and Fletcher will shift to short or third.
He may also fill in at first base and at third, which is his best defensive position.
“Obviously it’s a dream come true, but now it’s time to get after it, and contribute to the team,” Rojas said.
It’s not certain how much playing time Rojas will get, but Maddon expects him to hit, because Rojas has hit at every level.
In his last full professional season, in 2019 for the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees, Rojas hit .293 with 31 homers, 39 doubles and drove in 107 runs.
This spring, in 23 Cactus League games, Rojas slashed .313/.465/.625 — so it was clear to the Angels’ brass that his 2019 season wasn’t a mirage.
Rojas said: “The odds might have been against me, but I believe that when you have faith anything can happen.”
He definitely was a longshot at the beginning of Angels camp in Tempe, because major leaguers Franklin Barreto and Luis Rengifo were already ahead of Rojas for a utility infield spot.
But Rojas got his chance after Barreto, a 25-year-old shortstop/second baseman who was acquired from Oakland at the trade deadline for Tommy La Stella, hurt his right elbow earlier this week and it was announced that he would be sidelined for four to six weeks.
Three days ago, Rengifo, who has been the backup infielder for the last two seasons, was optioned by the club to the Bees, opening the door wide for Rojas.
Maddon said Rojas’ determination, readiness and positive attitude were what sold him and the other coaches on the local kid.
“Guys like Rojas who have done so well, they’re always going to say: ‘Why, why, why …’ and ‘Why didn’t I get this opportunity?’
“But not Jose … He never ever said that out loud.”
Rojas certainly knows his way to the ballpark. Born and bred just five miles away from the Big A in Anaheim, Rojas was an 9-year-old Angels fan playing Little League and riding his bike when the Anaheim Angels won the World Series in 2002.
And he’s still as Orange County as they come. After starring at Anaheim High School, where he was one of the Colonists’ best players in the last 50 years, Rojas went on to play baseball at Fullerton College.
Then he transferred to little Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, where he played shortstop for the NAIA Lions. As a senior at Vanguard, Rojas hit .361 (73 for 202) and caught the eye of Angels scouts
The team plucked him in the 36th round of the 2016 draft.
Rojas will now be the second player from Vanguard to play in the major leagues for the Angels, following Tim Fortugno, who pitched for the Angels in 1992.
At Vanguard, Rojas played shortstop and wore No. 11.
He won’t be able to wear No. 11 that with the Angels because it’s retired in honor of Jim Fregosi, but his days of wearing No. 80 in camp are over.