By Stu Matthews, Angels Nation managing editor
Angels manager Joe Maddon gave his clearest signal yet on Wednesday that he’s leaning towards sentimental favorite Jose Rojas to make the Halos’ Opening Day roster as the sixth infielder.
“I’m getting pretty comfortable … Real comfortable, actually,” Maddon said of the idea of Rojas being in the big leagues with the Angels on April 1.
That’s about as high a recommendation as you can get, especially coming from the skipper.
Unless Maddon changes his mind, Jose Rojas won’t be wearing No. 80 for too much longer — he’ll have a real major-league uniform number.
The burly Rojas is hitting .321 with two homers in 20 games this spring, so Maddon really likes Rojas’ left-handed swing.
But the manager is really high on Rojas’ attitude and willingness to learn, saying the Anaheim native had developed a “fan club” among the Angels coaches. “He’s a really fascinating young man, real bright,” Maddon said.
Maddon had previously comped Rojas to bat-first major leaguers like Tommy La Stella, Mike Moustakas and Daniel Murphy — “nomad players” who ended up calling second base home simply because their bats needed to be in the lineup.
“If you cut aside any kind of of bias you have, based on how he got here, and just look at it with pure intentions, he’s done really well,” Maddon said.
Rojas played high school baseball at Anaheim High School — just five miles away from the Big A — and is a lifetime Angels fan and he’s certainly paid his dues in the minors. He’s proud to wear the Angels uniform, even in spring training.
Nearly overlooked, Rojas was drafted by the Halos in the 36th round in 2016 out of Vanguard University, and grinded through 411 minor-league games with a .289 average and .852 OPS.
He also went to work in the Venezuelan winter leagues, where he hit .316 in two seasons with the Bravos de Margarita.
But he really opened eyes of the Angels in 2019 when he hit .293 with 39 doubles, 31 homers and 107 RBI for the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees. At every level — from rookie league Orem at age 23, to Single-A Inland Empire, to Double-A Mobile, to Salt Lake, Rojas has peppered the field with line-drive base hits.
Maddon said: “Just look at his track record of success in the minor leagues — that matters. And then you watch him here … Just watch him in the batters’ box and you tell me why that doesn’t work.”
The only reason it might not work is that Rojas hasn’t proven he can play shortstop at the major-league level, despite being a shortstop in high school and college.
But he’s competent at third base and second, where he’s getting most of his reps. And Rojas has been working diligently with third-base coach Brian Butterfield, who is also the Angels’ coaching guru for infielders.
If a nagging injury to a starter occurred — one that didn’t require a roster move — Maddon said he would be comfortable with Rojas handling second base and David Fletcher sliding over to SS
Rojas is one of the Angels’ most popular minor leaguers on social media.
“I think it’s just something that comes with being born and raised in Anaheim,” Rojas said. “The fans know that. The story speaks for itself …”
“It’s definitely been a dream come true and at the end of the day, it would be a dream come true to put on the uniform at the Big A and help the team win.”
If Rojas makes the Opening Day squad, it would mean Luis Rengifo — who was nearly traded to the Dodgers in February 2020 for outfielder Joc Pederson and pitcher Ross Stripling — would be sent to the minors. So it isn’t as if the Angels consider Rengifo untouchable.
Utility infielder Franklin Barreto, who has a similar skill set to Rengifo, is on the injured list with elbow inflammation that will sideline him 4-6 weeks, and Barreto is out of minor-league options.