After being selected in the first round of the 2016 Draft, Matt Thaiss hasn’t quite had the impact in the Majors that he or the Angels envisioned at the time.
But Thaiss, who was drafted as a catcher, is looking to carve out his career with added versatility, as he is now seeing action at first base, second base, third base and outfield. Angels manager Joe Maddon values that utility, which is why others in camp -- such as Taylor Ward, Luis Rengifo and Franklin Barreto -- are also working on playing multiple positions this spring.
Thaiss is just 25 years old and has time to turn things around, but he acknowledged that everything hasn’t exactly gone to plan since being taken with the No. 16 overall selection five years ago. Thaiss has batted .202/.291/.405 with nine homers, seven doubles and 24 RBIs in 61 games over the last two seasons -- though he only played in eight games last year, spending most of the time at the club's alternate site in Long Beach, Calif.
“I'm very blessed and very thankful that I got the opportunity so far to be where I am today, but that being said, obviously, I don't think anyone would be satisfied with where I am today," Thaiss said. "And I think that's something that can fuel me. I want more from a personal standpoint, from a team standpoint, so I'm excited to do whatever I can to get to that. And it requires a lot of work."
Thaiss has a tough road to making the Opening Day roster, especially because his best positions are first and third base. The Angels already have Jared Walsh and Albert Pujols at first and Anthony Rendon at third. But if Thaiss can prove to be competent at second or in the outfield, he could see his role expanded as the season goes along.
Thaiss can also use Walsh as inspiration for how things can turn around quickly, as Walsh, 27, finally broke out last year and is now the club’s regular first baseman. Thaiss has worked to fix his swing mechanics. He believes he got away from what made him a first-round selection in the first place.
"As cliché as it sounds, I’m kind of trying to go back to the old me," Thaiss said. "Why I got drafted, I guess. As a contact hitter who can drive the ball at times. That's what I've been trying to do. I've felt good here early in camp."
Maddon still believes Thaiss can be a productive big leaguer and doesn’t think giving him new positions will affect his hitting in a negative way. Maddon is a firm believer in versatility because it’s something that can help players both in the short and long term.
“Right now, he’s swinging the bat pretty good,” Maddon said. “And even if it were the case [defense taking time away from working on hitting], I think it still behooves him to be able to do these different things in order to get here and stay here. Eventually, maybe he becomes a regular at a position, but he's doing really well right now and making progress in different areas. But, of course, the most important thing is going to be the bat."
Thaiss has had success offensively at the Minor League level, batting .279/.363/.445 with 45 homers and 241 RBIs in 404 games -- but he’s had trouble translating those numbers to the Majors.
Thaiss is likely to start the season at the alternate site again this year with the Triple-A season being pushed back at least a month. But Thaiss believes he put in important work at the alternate site last year, even though it wasn’t ideal to lose a full Minor League season.
"It's completely different,” Thaiss said. “And depending on how you use it, it can either be a really good thing or a really bad thing. I think it's safe to say that nobody wants to be at the alt site. So if you go into it with that attitude, you're not gonna get a whole lot out of it. But I was able to use that time to really hone down my swing. More importantly, I hadn't played third or at second or in the outfield for a long time. So for me, it was really using that downtime to get better at those positions. And I think I used it in the right way."