Ortega looking to get back on track with Angels

Outfielder thwarted by leg injury in 2013, now impressing early this spring

March 8th, 2016

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Angels outfielder Rafael Ortega grew up in Venezuela wanting to be Bobby Abreu. He had four older brothers and began playing baseball when he was 3 years old, never once aspiring to be anything but a Major Leaguer.

"I've always had that dream," Ortega said in Spanish. "And here I am, still trying to make that happen."

There was a time, not too long ago, when Ortega thought it would happen quickly. He soared through the Rockies' system, batting no lower than .283 in each of his first four full seasons, and made his Major League debut in 2012. By 2013, he was one of the Rockies' top outfield prospects.

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Then he hurt his tibia, went on waivers, struggled, elected free agency, and now here he is, still trying to find his way.

"He's as billed," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He was described to our scouts as a guy who puts the ball in play. Really good outfielder, plus arm, which we've seen, runs well, can handle the bat as a situational hitter."

The Angels entered the offseason desperate for controllable outfield depth and quickly made Ortega a prime target. They were the only ones to offer him a Major League contract, which made Ortega choose them over the Cubs, and are giving him an outside chance to win a spot on their Opening Day roster.

Ortega is only 24, but he's already with his fourth professional organization.

In 2013, he fouled a ball off his right leg in Double-A, tried to play through it and wound up with a fractured tibia that cost him two months. Ortega was placed on waivers twice the following offseason, going to the Rangers in late November and to the Cardinals in early January. Then he fell off, batting .249/.331/.346 in 101 Double-A games.

Rolando Fernandez, the Rockies' vice president of international scouting and development, originally signed Ortega as a 16-year-old. He knew Ortega was small -- about 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds at that point -- but felt he could be a big leaguer some day because he ran well, threw hard, put the ball in play and possessed uncanny strike-zone awareness.

"He didn't have a lot of power," Fernandez said, "but he stayed within himself. When he started getting a little bit of power, he started to hit the ball in the air and I think he began to change his approach, hitting more fly balls. I think he went outside of who he is."

The 2015 season was the year Ortega finally got back to that. He finished the year batting .286/.367/.378 in Triple-A, with 55 walks and 71 strikeouts in 502 plate appearances, prompting the Angels to sign him on Dec. 1.

In his first four Cactus League games, Ortega gunned down two baserunners from right field. In his sixth, against the White Sox on Monday in a 9-4 Angels loss, he slapped two hits, a double to left-center and a single to right.

"Maybe it just shocked me, what happened with the Rockies," Ortega said. "Maybe it's the injuries I had; I lost a bit of time. Maybe that made my confidence waver a little. The important thing is that it's back now. I'm feeling good."