by Stu Matthews, angelsnation.com managing editor
Cynical Angels fans — you know the ones around the message boards — cried out for a player named “Maypitch” or “Mayhit.”
But the Thursday arrival of bearded shortstop Jack Mayfield, an old-school glove-slinger, heated up the battle of infielders vying for a what may be only one utility job on the unit that leaves Tempe.
May you have luck in the field, Jack … No pressure, then.
The Angels are already locked in around the horn, barring injury with superstar Anthony Rendon at third, Jose Iglesias at shortstop, David Fletcher at second, and a possible platoon of Jared Walsh and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols at first.
But the Angels have learned the hard way the value of solid backups.
2020 injuries to Rendon, Fletcher and five-year shortstop Andrelton Simmon rattled the Angels’ infield chemistry. In a full 162-game season, infield depth will be a prime commodity in both Anaheim and AAA Salt Lake City.
Mayfield’s acquisition may have solidified things. An undisclosed sum of cold-hard cash paid the freight for the 30-year-old Mayfield to the Braves, where Minasian had served as assistant to GM Alex Anthopoulos.
Minasian’s math is simplified by the defensive excellence of both Fletcher and Mayfield,
Mayfield had been picked up by Atlanta off waivers in November from the Astros, where his weak MLB slashline of .170 with and OPS of only .480 stood in stark contrast to his strength as a defender.
But in seven years in the minors, Mayfield was a solid hitter with muscle to match his beard. Over seven years in the Astros’ system, Mayfield had 100 homers, including 50 in the Pacific Coast League.
At first glance, Mayfield seems like a good bet for the 26-man roster, and could be an upgrade at shortstop defensively over even Iglesias or Fletcher.
But these spring afternoons in Tempe will determine who will make the MLB squad on Opening Day, and a simple matter of minor-league options might decide who rides the shuttle from Anaheim to AAA Salt Lake City.
Barreto has a gilded prospect pedigree and repeat — he’s only 24 years old.
Despite having been Baseball America’s No. 1 international prospect back in 2012, Barreto is still only 24.
The big minus for Barreto — Zero minor-league options. If Barreto can’t win the utility job in Tempe this month, the Angels will have to expose him to the waiver wire because Salt Lake City isn’t an option. Some club will certainly pick him up.
Minasian may rightfully feel that he’s lost nothing: A free agent this winter, La Stella signed with the San Francisco Giants earlier this month for $18.7 million over three years. The annual salaries of Mayfield, Fletcher and Jose Iglesias add up to less.
But poor Barreto — he was only 16 when he signed a $1.5 million bonus with the Blue Jays when he was a 16-year-old scooping up every béisbol in baseball-crazy Venezuela. He’s earned next to nothing since.
Barreto’s bat has never flashed at the MLB level (career .175 average, nine HRs). But if the Angels let him go, the front office may regret the day the 25-year-old Barreto suddenly learned how to hit.
2 — ROBEL GARCIA: If he manages to not be claimed in next week’s waiver period, Garcia could be the Angels’ feel-good story of 2021.
To clear room for Mayfield on the 40-man roster, Garcia was designated for assignment Thursday. But it’s possible that Garcia could stay with the club and nab an unlikely utility spot.
He’s done the “unlikely” before. In 2018, Garcia was nearly forgotten to MLB — he was playing for Italy’s World Baseball Classic team when Chicago Cubs scout Gabe Zappin spotted Garcia blasting homers in the Arizona Instructional League.
He had moved to Verona, Italy to live with his Italian-Dominican wife Daniela, and their children. Baseball was just a low-paid hobby for him in Europe, where he was a Dominican foreign star on the Fortitudo Bologna baseball club in Serie A1, Italian professional league.
After Zappin saw Garcia in Arizona playing for Team Italia, he was signed to a minor-league contract by the Cubs and scorched baseballs — a .295/.391/.590 slash in AA Tennessee in 2019, carrying on with 21 more homers in just 72 games at AAA Iowa.
You can’t teach raw power and bat speed like that of Signor Garcia, but at 27, and unable to play shortstop, strikeout-prone … he could end up playing elsewhere. For a week, the Angels can try to trade Garcia, a get him through waivers.
Otherwise, despite Maddon’s affections, it would likely be Ciao, angeli … arrivederci, angeli.Ciao, angeli … arrivederci, angeli as Signor Garcia might say in Bologna or Verona.
Why not the Angels? Well, there are a lot of infielders in Tempe, but barring a trade, Gosselin appears blocked in Anaheim by Fletcher, Barreto, and Rengifo.
Gosselin also has a decent right-handed bat with pop — with the Phillies from 2019-20 he hit .255 with three homes and eight doubles, a certain option as a pinch hitter.
But Gosselin’s age and lack of minor-league options may hurt him in Tempe. We’ll see.
4 — JACK MAYFIELD: As discussed above, Mayfield possesses the best glove of all the names on this list. If he can hit like he did in the Astros’ system, before his at-bats were limited by the likes of Altuve, Correa and Bregman, Mayfield is a no-doubter a roster spot and a fan favorite role — next to David Fletcher, of course.
Mayfield’s four AAA seasons Mayfield slashed .268/.325/.472 and he still has minor-league options remaining. He hit 100 homers in Houston’s minor-league system, including 50 at the AAA level.
And let’s look at his defense again. In only 170 innings at shortstop for the non-trashcan banging Astros in 2019-20, Mayfield saved a wizardly 5.0 runs (“Rdrs” or defensive runs saved). That’s smoother than Bregman when Mayfield spelled Correa at shortstop.
He’s a two-time father now, and with new baby girl Rylee Mayfield looks like a man who’s very comfortable holding a precious bundle, as well as a baseball:
Valentine’s Day 2021! What a day, so lucky to have these 3 as my special ones! I love you Hun, my forever Valentine! 🥰😘 pic.twitter.com/IQ5b7VqDPL
Would you trust this man to hold your daughter? He won’t drop her.
5 — LUIS RENGIFO: Do you remember the “Winter of Discontent” of 2020? Slightly more than a year ago in the pre-pandemic days the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Angels agreed — signed, sealed, delivered — on a trade of switch-hitting SS/2B Rengifo into Dodger blue for slugging outfielder Joc Pederson and right-handed SP Ross Striping?
To the Dodgers!
We thought you might remember that Deal-Or-No-Deal. It was done and dusted by Eppler — the Angels had moved the versatile, valuable Rengifo across town for a starting pitcher and outfielder the 2021 Halos could use.
Angels owner Arte Moreno, sensitive to the nature of his big-spending crosstown rivals, got frustrated and nixed the trade his GM Eppler had just made — and Moreno told the Associated Press about it.
So, remember this, Tempe infield watchers: The Angels already tried to trade Luis Rengifo, a very good infielder, a switch-hitter, and a guy who’s proven for two years that he can handle the major leagues.
At 24, Rengifo has trade-chip value. And Minasian, although new to the job, knows that too, and has shown he’s not afraid to pull the trigger on a deal that suits the Angels’ interests.
6 — MATT THAISS: Thaiss is a likeable Angel, who unfortunately is in the position in his MLB career where he has also possible become “trade bait” on Angels Twittersphere. It’s not fair! — but MLB is a cruel business.
Who wouldn’t want a left-handed hitting third baseman and a former first-round pick choice (No. 16, 2016 draft)?
Hmmm, well, the Angels, happen one who is blocked by All-Star Rendon’s Gold Glove defense at the hot corner and don’t have room at first base, either.
Minasian is still under heat to add quality — (not quantity) — arms to his rotation or bullpen. The Angels may enter 2021 with the staff they have, but much like Rengifo, Thaiss has value as a possibly exchange piece.
Thaiss, like Rengifo, has two minor-league options left, which is always attractive to trade partners.
As lefty 3Bs go, Thaiss isn’t George Brett. Nor is he Wade Boggs. But if Minasian, who has shown an early instinct for stealthy trades (did anyone see Jose Iglesias or Mayfield coming?) will deal when he can.
Thaiss has shown willing to play anywhere at any time. Drafted as a catcher out of the University of Virginia, Thaiss has never played catcher anywhere in the Angels organization. But he has played plenty of first, third, even second base (although the latter, not prettily).
Thaiss could be playing somewhere else in 2021 (another position on the Angels, or another club?).
But these questions are part of what makes watching the battles in Tempe play out.
Outfielders coming tomorrow.