Angels' pitcher-only Draft plan is ... working?

March 13th, 2023

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The baseball world, particularly the scouting industry, watched with wonderment as the 2021 Draft wore on. Round after round, the Angels took pitcher after pitcher. After 20 rounds and 20 picks, the Angels had completed a pitcher-only Draft, all but one coming from the college ranks.

The 19 arms they signed have now been with the organization for a full year and as they’ve all come to camp ready for year No. 2, is it crazy to think that perhaps this outlandish plan is… working?

Even with injuries slowing first-round pick Sam Bachman (more on him later), he and 10 others from the class at least touched Double-A, with many of them spending the entire year there. And there was 11th-rounder Chase Silseth, who is the first player from the 2021 Draft on any team to make it to the big leagues. Combined, the Draft class finished with a 4.07 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. That Double-A affiliate, the Rocket City Trash Pandas, led the Southern League in wins and won their division in both halves of the season.

“A lot of those guys came from big time college programs,” Angels farm director Joey Prebynski said. “They pitched in very competitive environments so we felt good about being aggressive. I think you saw that play out over the course of the year and that Rocket City club was one of the better pitching groups in the Southern League."

There were some injuries and hiccups along the way. Mason Erla, the club’s 17th-rounder, missed two months with a shoulder injury. Ryan Costeiu (Round 7), one of the college arms who didn’t make it to Double-A but who threw well in High-A, was shut down in July with an elbow issue.

This spring, things continue to point in a new direction. Silseth has added a cutter to give hitters a different look, learning from his experiences in the big leagues last year and most recently gave up one run on three hits, striking out five, over four innings in a Cactus League start. Bachman, Erla and Luke Murphy (fourth round) have all thrown well in big league camp. Ky Bush, who spent all offseason in Arizona working on strength and conditioning, has been throwing bullpens and should be ready to go. The list goes on and on with positive news.

“It’s really important for us to put guys in good environments and winning environments,” Prebynski said. “This is a place certainly where we put a priority on winning, but certainly development happened through winning. We were definitely aggressive with guys, but we're encouraged by how it's played out so far.”

Camp standout: Victor Mederos

Mederos has long been enigmatic as a prospect, first at the University of Miami and then at Oklahoma State. The arm strength, the velocity, the pure stuff, has always been good. The ability to get people out? Not so much. He left the college ranks with a career 5.40 ERA (2020 and 2021 combined). The Angels felt the raw ingredients were worth rolling the dice on in the sixth round of the 2022 Draft, signing him for an under-slot bonus of $227,750. He got his feet wet in High-A ball last year with 16 innings, but it was during instructional league play that he actually opened some eyes.

He was routinely up to 99 mph with his fastball and was commanding it better, his two-plane slider was sharper and he has the makings of a downer curve and changeup. And now, armed with the knowledge that even when he throws hard, that four-seamer gets too straight and good hitters square it up, he’s working on providing a different look, with positive results in the early going.

“He shows you plus stuff and he started incorporating a two-seamer that shows the ability to stay off barrels,” Prebynski said. “He’s a tremendous competitor. With his pitch profile, this gives him another fastball to stay off barrels and he can pair it with the four-seamer to go along with the curveball, slider and changeup.”

Breakout candidate: Walbert Urena

Urena joined the Angels when the 2020-21 international signing period opened in January 2021, signing for $140,000. He didn’t make his official pro debut until 2022 because of a minor arm issue, though he did throw in Dominican instructs that fall. He came to the United States to compete in the Arizona Complex League and showed a lot to be excited about (10.8 K/9) and a lot of what he needs to work on (7.7 BB/9).

He's not the biggest guy in the world, but the stuff is huge with a fastball that touched 102 mph in the ACL and a changeup that could be at least above-average in time, while he continues to refine his slider. He’s just 19 for all of the 2023 season and the Angels are encouraged that his offseason work will help him take another big step forward this year.

“It’s a big fastball, he flashes a plus changeup, the breaking ball has continued to come along,” Prebynski said. “Physically, he’s gotten stronger over the winter. He’s continued to improve his ability to repeat his delivery and compete with his stuff in the zone.”

Something to prove: Sam Bachman

It’s only been one year of pro ball, but as the No. 9 overall pick of the 2021 Draft, one who had perhaps the most electric pure stuff in the class, the 2022 season had to be concerning. The Angels’ No. 6 prospect dealt with back and biceps issues and threw just 43 2/3 innings all year, with his stuff regressing as a result.

The good news is that early returns this spring have been very promising, including him striking out the side in his Cactus League debut. He’s healthy and the stuff has ticked back up, providing hope that he can have a bounceback ’23 season.

“He’s moving really well down the mound,” Prebynski said. “The velocity has ticked back up. It was 95-98 mph in that big league game. The fastball creates a lot of ground ball contact. He creates east and west separation with the slider and the change has continued to get better. Where the stuff has been at early, we’re really encouraged.”