At the Half – Salt Lake

Joe Saunders pitching for Rancho Cucamonga in May 2004.

Once upon a time, the National Football League allowed its teams to carry taxi squads, a small group of extra players who were ineligible to play but were nonetheless under contract. A player could be activated from the taxi squad for the next game if need be.

The Salt Lake Bees, the Angels’ affiliate in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, are the Angels’ equivalent of a taxi squad. So far this year, seven Bees have made token appearances in the big leagues with Anaheim (excluding Angels players rehabbing with Salt Lake). Angels Manager Mike Scioscia and GM Bill Stoneman give these youngsters a basic exposure to big-league life (and pressures), then send them back to Salt Lake for further seasoning.

In the case of LHP Joe Saunders, he’s the "sixth pitcher" in the Angels rotation. Many organizations would stash a top prospect pitcher in the bullpen, where he’d work long relief. The Angels, though, realize the value of keeping Saunders in a starting pitcher mentality, so they have him starting for Salt Lake every five days. Most of the time, his starts coincided with start days for Bartolo Colon, whose health has been the most questionable of the five pitchers in the Angels’ rotation. Saunders has come up for spot starts when Colon has been unavailable, and will start tomorrow night for the Angels as Jered Weaver skips a start due to a shoulder injury suffered last weekend while running the bases at Dodger Stadium.

So Saunders’ Triple-A record (5.22 ERA) really doesn’t mean much, because he hasn’t been working in a stable environment. His major league record in four starts is 3-0 with a 2.22 ERA, although his 11:12 SO:BB ratio in 24.1 IP is worrisome. In the long run, he’ll be an Angels regular, no later than 2008 as Colon is a free agent after the current season.

The Angels traded infield prospect Alberto Callaspo to Arizona for RHP reliever Jason Bulger in February 2006. Many observers condemned the trade, believing Callaspo to be a top prospect while Bulger at age 27 was unfilled potential, just another power arm. Callaspo had been on the Top 10 Prospects list at one time, but I’d dropped him off the list because his numbers had dropped precipitously when he reached Salt Lake with the Angels. I warned at the time that Callaspo would probably post misleading numbers at Triple-A Tucson, and sure enough he went on to a banner 2006 that ended with his major league debut. Bulger, meanwhile, suffered from arm injuries and the Angels let him take his minor league free agency at year’s end.

But time has once again vindicated Bill Stoneman. Callaspo was arrested by Phoenix police for allegedly assaulting his wife, and was eventually sent back to Tucson. Bulger, meanwhile, chose to sign a minor league contract with the Angels, moving him off the 40-man roster. Bulger at the halfway point of the season had a 2.96 ERA in 27.1 relief innings, posting a 44:15 SO:BB ratio and a groundout-to-all-out (GO/AO) ratio of 1.24. Away from hitter-friendly Franklin Covey Field, his ERA is 1.64 and his GO/AO is a sick 3.00. With Justin Speier still a question mark in Anaheim due to an intestinal ailment, Bulger may find himself in Anaheim before season’s end, proving yet again that Stoneman’s patience is a virtue.

A quick note about RHP reliever Chris Resop, acquired in a winter trade for RHP reliever Kevin Gregg. Although his overall 5.40 ERA may look disappointing, look at his numbers away from Franklin Covey — a 3.32 ERA in 19.0 IP (38.1 IP overall), a 17:7 SO:BB ratio, and opponents’ average of only .205. Hmmm …

Nathan Haynes made his major league debut on May 28.

The feel-good story of the year is outfielder Nathan Haynes, whose professional career was given up for dead when the Angels let him take his six-year minor league free agency after the 2003 season, his talent a sad parody of his potential due to a series of career-threatening injuries. Haynes played briefly with the Giants’ minor league system in 2004-2005 and resurfaced in independent ball in 2006.

The Angels re-acquired Haynes in June 2006 as an outfielder for Double-A Arkansas, and he came to spring training camp projected to report to Salt Lake at the best, Arkansas the more likely. Yet an impressive spring found him in Salt Lake for Opening Night.

Now 27, it was probably his last shot at a big league career, and by late May he’d posted an incredible AVG/OBP/SLG of .386/.462/.579 with 14 SB in 21 attempts. He made his major league debut on May 28, and as of this writing remains in Anaheim where he’s been reunited with best buddy Chone Figgins. Chone credited Nathan with the advice that brought him out of a funk and sent Figgins on an incredible hot streak that included a 6-for-6 night on Monday.

Outfielder Terry Evans, now 25, was acquired in July 2006 from the St. Louis Cardinals for RHP Jeff Weaver. Evans was a non-prospect until an improbable awakening as the 2006 season unfolded. Most analysts figured Evans’ surge was a fluke, but his numbers continued to impress after he reported to Double-A Arkansas and posted a .309/.385/.553 line for the Travs.

Evans posted a line of .327/.352/.556 with the Bees this year, including 13 SB. One worrisome stat was his 60:10 SO:BB ratio in 257 AB. Nine of those walks came at home, and only one walk on the road where his line was .317/.317/.569. Evans made his major league debut last weekend at Dodger Stadium and struck out in a pinch-hit appearance, but last night in his first start he homered to left in his first at-bat, becoming the first Angels rookie since Mike Napoli in 2006 to homer for his first big-league hit.

Brandon Wood, 22, was ranked the Angels’ top prospect by Baseball America. The Angels moved him from SS to 3B after Dallas McPherson underwent another back surgery. Brandon’s defense has been fine, but the youngster has struggled against experienced Triple-A pitching. His overall AVG/OBP/SLG are .249/.342/.450, although in June to date his numbers are much better — .288/.365/.591. Wood made his major league debut on April 26 and was 1 for 11 in three games before returning to Salt Lake.

The Bees’ record through 72 games was 38-34, good enough for first place in the PCL Pacific North Division. Unlike the other full-season leagues in the system, the PCL doesn’t divide their 144-game sechedule into two halves, so no fresh start with Game #73. Bees Manager Brian Harper has managed to keep his team competitive despite losing so much talent to Anaheim. Which is, after all, the point of having a minor league system.

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