by Stu Matthews, angelsnation.com managing editor
In a month’s time, the green, green grass of home will be ready for Mike Trout, Justin Upton, Dexter Fowler and … Jo Adell, who hopes to get back to the Big A and stick for good, possibly by summertime.
The outfield will have other faces, too — maybe even potential eephus “pitcher” Jon Jay, whose normal calling card is veteran centerfielder.
At spring camp in Tempe, Ariz., at least six relievers hope to grab spots as skipper Joe Maddon’s plots the way to the club’s first postseason since 2015.
A bunch of hungry infielders are also looking to nail down a spot on the 26-man roster tha Maddon brings into Opening Day.
The Angels’ outfield likely will be patrolled by a trio of veterans: Upton in left field, newly acquired Fowler in right, and in center, Mike Trout, one of the best players in the history of baseball.
Maddon would like the prized Adell to marinate in the minor leagues for “as long as it takes” — an approach the skipper also takes with prospects like Brandon Marsh and Jordyn Adams who are viewed as future Angels’ stars. But give ’em time.
The newcomer is the veteran Fowler, and Maddon knows what he’s getting in the streaky, lanky outfielder who was an All-Star in 2016 on Maddon’s World Champion Chicago Cubs.
But on this 2021 Angels team, the 6-5, easy-going Fowler is an upbeat, super-important placeholder.
Fowler, 34, waived his no-trade shot for chance to play for Maddon again — with full knowledge he’d possibly only serve as mentor for Adell, the wunderkind who almost certainly will take his full-time job perhaps as early as mid-summer.
Maddon said of Adell and Fowler: “It think it’s just going to be an organic situation where they’re just going to hit it off.”
Adell, just 21, failed in his MLB debut in 2020. He was called into duty for 38 painful games during last year’s pandemic season, and was exposed too early. Adell made three minor-league seasons look easy, slashing .298/.518/.878. Maddon wants his top prospect to get more AAA games in Salt Lake under his belt so there are no repeats of the .161 batting average Adell suffered through in 2020.
While Adell steeps in Salt Lake City, the Angels’ starting outfield is set — but Maddon needs at least one, preferably two players who can fill a “fourth outfielder” role.
“Part of this group is a pretty good mix of veterans that’ve experienced a lot of different things at the major league level,” general manager Perry Minasian said. “And some of our upper-echelon prospects are here to be around some of the outfield talent we have.”
Let’s take a look at some of the players Maddon and Minasian will be eyeballing in Tempe around the outfield:
1 — JON JAY: While Angels fans clamored for pitching, Minasian continued a streak of piling up outfield depth with the minor-league deal for the 35-year-old Jay on February 11. He also got a lefty “reliever.” ***
Jay and Juan Lagares are the only NRI players in camp with significant experience in center field — a concern in case of an absence to Trout. Jay also owns a career .283 average and is a dangerous contact hitter from the left side.
He’s also another familiar, smiling face for Maddon, who may be flexing managerial muscle much like Mike Scioscia in bringing his “Maddon guys.” Fowler, Jay and pitchers Jose Quintana and Alex Cobb are all former Maddon players.
If it’s an advantage, Jay played all three outfield spots for Maddon’s 2017 Chicago Cubs.
*** And Jay even pitched a scoreless inning in a 11-2 blowout loss to the Brewers, when he trotted in from center at Wrigley Field to take the mound and soft-toss 47-mph “slurve.”
Said Jay: “I think I may have set a record for the slowest pitching ever. Take a look, you won’t forget it:
Said losing manager Maddon: “He had a changeup to his changeup … When he brought it to the low to mid-50s, it was much better. It was entertaining. You’ve got to find a bright spot in the day.”
2 — JUAN LAGARES: Signed earlier this month to a minor-league contract that’s worth a reported $1.25 million if he makes the Angels’ MLB roster, Lagares is legendary in New York for the multiple highlight-reel catches he made as the Mets’ center fielder — and the constant nagging injuries that stopped him from stardom in the Big Apple.
Now 31, Lagares spent 13 years in the Mets organization after being signed as a shortstop in 2006 as an international free agent. Always a fine right-handed bat, Lagares won the NL Gold Glove in center field for the Mets in 2014, which guarantees Twitter fame and New York fortune.
If Lagares becomes the fourth outfielder, it will be a drop in the bucket compared to the $23 million contract the Mets paid him through 2019.
Unfortunately, Lagares banged up just about every part of his body during his time in New York — he hurt his hamstring, quadriceps, toe, elbow and thumb. These niggling injuries caused a Twitter rift between Lagares and lovable-but-feisty Mets manager Terry Collins (who was equally feisty as Angels manager from 1997-99).
Lagares parted ways with the Mets after averaging just 68 games over his last five years.
With Trout, Upton, Fowler and Adell on his way, the Angels would be very happy with 68 leather-worthy games from Juan Lagares.
3 — SCOTT SCHEBLER: Big-time power, big-time athleticism … Schebler had it all with the Cincinnati Reds in 2017 when he was 26. He mashed 30 home runs as a middle-order left-handed stick for the Reds that year.
But Schebler has been stuck in a minor-league rut since May 2019. After hitting just .123 with 27 strikeouts in 30 games in 2019, the Reds sent the slugger down to the AAA Louisville Bats with instructions to — as Schebler told the Louisville Courier-Journal: “Go down, get your swing right, become the player we know you are, and then we’ll see.”
Schebler can play all three outfield positions respectably and has also played for the Dodgers and Braves. Minasian knew him well from his time as Atlanta’s assistant GM and his lefty bat would fit in well in an Angels outfield that bats heavily right-handed.
He’d earn an estimated $900,000 if he makes the major league cut.
And for the stat geeks: In 2017, the only MLB players to rank in the 75th percentile in xwOBA, Spring Speed, and Outs Above Average were Aaron Judge, Tommy Pham, Kris Bryant, Cody Bellinger … and Scott Schebler (courtesy Cespedes Family BBQ).
4 — TAYLOR WARD: After getting red-hot and finally measuring up to his first-round 2015 MLB draft status at age 27, the Indio, Calif. native and former Fresno State University made his bat do the talking during the abbreviated 2020 season.
But excuse Ward for a moment if he doesn’t know where he is.
Drafted as a catcher, Ward was converted into an infielder outfielder and made his MLB debut in August, 2018. In three years as an Angel, he’s had his name penciled into the lineup by three different managers in three seasons — Mike Scioscia, Brad Ausmus, and last year and this, finally stability in Joe Maddon.
Ward’s Wikipedia page still lists him as “American professional baseball third baseman.” Maybe it would be better if a Wiki editor just changed that to “American professional baseball player” and leave it for a while.
Because, in Tempe this spring, it seems that Maddon and the Angels are trying to convert poor Taylor Ward back from an outfielder into … yes, you guessed it, a catcher again.
Ward, despite the pop he showed in a .277 campaign in which he showed he belonged as a batter and outfielder — he was errorless at four positions last season — may be donning the tools of ignorance yet again.
A guy on the 26-man roster who can play the corner infield and outfield spots, and can step in at any time (injured Angels, anyone?) and strap on the catching gear has extra value.
Ward reported early to Tempe with the pitchers and catchers.
“He looks like he hasn’t missed a beat behind the dish,” Maddon said, behind a semi-wicked grin. Maddon, of course, was a catcher in the Angels minor league system in the late 1970s, calling signs and getting beat up by foul tips in Class-A ballparks like Quad Cities, Iowa and Salinas.
It’ll now be up to Maddon and Minasian to make the call on which of this outfield crew gets a chance to join Trout, Upton, Fowler and Adell in the Angels push for depth in the hunt for the 2021 playoffs.
Listen to Angels Nation staff writer BJ Martin’s podcasts at: @_HaloLife. (You’ll frequently hear Angels Nation editor Stu Matthews teaming up with BJ as a guest on BJ’s special “60-for-60” podcasts).