On June 4th, the Angels will make the 17th overall selection in the MLB Draft. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at a few of the team’s recent first-round picks. First up is 2009, when the Angels were allotted an unusually large amount of selections early in the draft.
By win-loss record, the Angels had their most successful season in franchise history in 2008, tallying 100 victories. Following the year, two of the club’s best players, Francisco Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, left via free agency.
Rodriguez had been with the Halos for the entirety of his career, which began in that magical 2002 season, and had just notched a major-league record 62 saves in 2008. He signed a three-year, $37 million deal with the New York Mets that offseason.
Teixeira joined the Angels in a mid-season swap with Atlanta in 2008 and transformed a forgettable Angels lineup into one of the most formidable groups in the majors. In 54 games with the Angels, Teixeira hit an eye-popping .358/.449/.632 (183 wRC+, where 100 is average) and produced 3.5 Wins Above Replacement. The first baseman joined the New York Yankees the following winter on an eight-year, $180 million pact.
While both departures hurt the Angels in the immediate future, they paid off in the long run, as the Angels received two draft picks in return for each player opting to move on from the team. Under the old system, teams who lost a Type-A free agent were compensated with a first-round pick and a pick in the compensation round, the one sandwiched in between the first and second rounds. So, the Angels ended up with four draft picks before the second round when Rodriguez and Teixeira, two Type-A free agents, went to New York.
But it didn’t stop there. They received another draft pick in the compensation round when starting pitcher Jon Garland, a Type-B free agent, signed with Arizona. Despite giving up a first-round pick to sign closer Brian Fuentes, the Angels ended up with five draft picks before the second round.
Of course, draft picks are only as valuable as a team makes them. The volatility of young players makes it extremely difficult for teams to make choices with positive and long-lasting impacts, even with the high-end talent available in the first few rounds. Fortunately for the Angels, they made their selections count and churned out one of the most successful drafts ever.
24th overall: Randal Grichuk
The Angels drafted Grichuk, an outfielder, out of a Texas high school with their first selection. His professional career was initially slowed by a series of injuries, which limited him to just 170 games through 2011. He still managed to hit 21 home runs in that time, though, and it was in 2012, his first extended exposure to professional baseball, that his power-hitting ability started to show.
In 135 games with the Angels’ High-A affiliate, Grichuk, now considered one of the Angels’ better prospects, crushed 18 home runs. He followed that up with an even better showing in Double-A the next year, where he launched 22 homers in 128 contests. But with his walk rate having peaked at just under 6% in rookie ball, he did not feature a complete offensive game and, therefore, had a limited ceiling, no matter how much power he possessed.
With this likely in mind, the Angels parted ways with Grichuk prior to the 2014 season, packaging him with speedy outfielder Peter Bourjos and sending the two to St. Louis in exchange for third baseman David Freese and relief pitcher Fernando Salas. Grichuk went on to hit 25 more homers in 108 games for the Cardinals’ Triple-A squad and cracked the major-league roster that year. He had a mostly forgettable debut, slashing .245/.278/.400 (90 wRC+).
2015 was a different story for Grichuk, however. He missed some time due to an elbow injury, but he was fantastic when he was on the field, hitting .276/.329/.548 (138 wRC+) with 17 long balls with the Cardinals. He also manned all three outfield spots and racked up seven Defensive Runs Saved. The result was an impressive 3.1 WAR in just 103 games.
Grichuk’s swing-and-miss tendency and inability to draw walks consistently have exposed his limitations, however, and he has failed to reach his 2015 productivity levels since. Due to his above-average defense and baserunning, Grichuk has remained a valuable player despite closer to average offensive output, but he accrued just 3.6 WAR from 2016-2017. With their glut of talented outfielders, the Cardinals traded the 26-year-old to the Blue Jays this past offseason, and, owning a dreadful .106/.208/.227 (19 wRC+) line, Grichuk is in the midst of his worst season, though there is some evidence that bad luck has played a big part.
Grichuk never appeared in a game for the Angels, but Freese was their starting third baseman for two years and Salas was a capable innings eater out of the bullpen for two and a half. From 2014-2015, Freese hit .258/.322/.401 (107 wRC+) while Salas posted a 4.03 ERA in 178 2/3 frames from 2014 to the last day of August 2016 when he was traded to the Mets. The Angels received a total of 5.9 WAR from the two players, and Grichuk has produced 6.5 WAR to this point.
Grichuk is an imperfect yet talented player, and the Angels probably didn’t get enough value in return for him. However, Freese and Salas were valuable contributors to a pair of contending teams, and they out-produced Grichuk during those years (Bourjos’ 1.0 WAR narrows the gap a bit). And while he’s not a bad player, Grichuk also might be the worst of the Angels’ first four picks in the 2009 draft, which is why they probably don’t lose much sleep over giving up Grichuk. The next guy they drafted, in particular, certainly softened the blow.
25th overall: Mike Trout
21 teams drafted 23 players not named Mike Trout before the Angels drafted the New Jersey native. Trout fell through the cracks partly because he was coming out of a high school in New Jersey, where the bad weather makes it difficult to scout players. Before Trout was drafted, there were also very few great players to come out of the state.
But scouts who did see Trout play were just not convinced. Some thought that his bat wouldn’t develop. Others, like Oakland’s General Manager, overlooked Trout because he didn’t have a “traditional baseball body.” A Royals scout who wanted to go see him play was told by a coworker that it wouldn’t be worth it because Trout didn’t have first-round talent. But Trout so obviously did have first-round talent, and he made that clear as soon as he stepped on a professional baseball field.
He played 39 games in Rookie ball the year he was drafted, hitting .360/.418/.506 with 13 stolen bases. That performance was enough to earn him a brief call to Single-A at the end of the season. He stayed there to begin the 2010 season and put together a .980 OPS and tallied 45 stolen bases in 54 attempts to earn a promotion to High-A, where he continued to impress. Trout then rolled through the Double-A competition in 2011. By now he was regarded as the best prospect in baseball, and he earned his first call to the big leagues on July 8, a little more than two years after he was drafted.
He had a couple of separate stints in the majors that year and appeared in 40 games, hitting a menial .220/.281/.390. He then began 2012 in Triple-A, once again putting up monster numbers. The Angels didn’t gain anything from keeping Trout in the minors for the first few weeks of the season, so this wasn’t the service-time manipulation that so many teams engage in today. It seems that, just like the teams that passed on Trout in the draft, the Angels simply didn’t comprehend the type of talent they were neglecting.
The Angels promoted Trout to the majors on April 28, and he quickly became the best player in the sport. In 2012, he hit .326/.399/.564 (167 wRC+) with 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases on his way to the Rookie of the Year Award. He also became the first 20-year-old player ever to accumulate 10 or more WAR in a season.
The following year, he became the first 21-year-old player to do the same. In 2014, he collected his 100th career stolen base and home run, becoming the youngest player to do so. He also won his first of two Most Valuable Player awards that year and has finished in the top-two in MVP voting in every year but his injury-shortened 2017, when he finished fourth.
Fast forward to today, and Trout has accumulated 58.4 WAR, more than all but two players in MLB history (Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle) had through their age-26 season. Trout still has more than four months left in his age-26 season and is projected to surpass those two. In other words, nobody who has ever played Major League Baseball has been this good, this quickly. Fortunately for the Angels, though, Trout played high school baseball in New Jersey and looked more like a linebacker than a five-tool baseball player, so many teams and scouts couldn’t be bothered.
40th overall: Tyler Skaggs
With their first of three picks in the compensation round of the 2009 draft, the Angels selected left-handed pitcher Tyler Skaggs. Like Grichuk and Trout, Skaggs was also drafted out of high school. Unlike the other two, though, Skaggs went to high school in Southern California.
Skaggs didn’t pitch much in 2009, and the Angels traded him in the middle of his first full professional season the following year. At the 2010 Trade Deadline, they packaged him with Patrick Corbin, Rafael Rodriguez, and Joe Saunders to acquire veteran pitcher Dan Haren from the Diamondbacks.
While Haren was putting together a 3.52 ERA and racking up 9.7 WAR in his two-plus seasons in Anaheim, Skaggs’ stock was rising in Arizona’s system; he was a top-15 prospect in baseball in both 2011 and 2012. In 2011, he posted a 2.96 ERA across 157 1/3 frames split between High-A and Double-A while striking out 31% of the batters he faced and walking just 5.8%.
He posted similarly dominant numbers in the minors in 2012, which resulted in his first promotion to the majors. He struggled greatly in his brief time in the big leagues that year, and he did so again in 2013 at both the MLB and Triple-A levels. In the following offseason, he returned to the Angels.
The Angels were involved in a three-team trade with the Diamondbacks and White Sox that netted them Skaggs and Hector Santiago in exchange for Mark Trumbo, who went to Arizona. Skaggs immediately became a key part of the Angels’ rotation and found some major-league success for the first time in his career. In 2014, he posted a 4.30 ERA in 113 innings across 18 starts. His season was cut short, however, when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery in August.
Skaggs’ post-Tommy John surgery career has been tumultuous. He did not return to a major league mound until nearly two years after his elbow surgery, an uncharacteristically long recovery time from a surgery that usually takes pitchers 12-16 months to return from. And since making it back to the majors in the summer of 2016, he has dealt with a variety of nagging injuries and numerous stints on the disabled list.
Skaggs has yet to make more than 18 major-league starts in a season, and he has fewer than 300 big-league innings under his belt since the Angels re-acquired him. But his talent is undeniable, and the 6-foot-4 lefty may finally be reaching his potential. Skaggs has improved his strikeout numbers this year while maintaining his above-average walk rate. He has also improved his ERA by more than a run and a half, from 4.55 in 2017 to 2.88 this year.
For Skaggs, it has never been a question of ability. He clearly possesses the talent to succeed at the major league level, but health has always held him back. Now 26, Skaggs is rewarding the Angels’ patience by becoming a mainstay in their rotation. A similar story can be told of the fourth player the Angels selected before the second round of 2009’s draft.
42nd overall: Garrett Richards
Garrett Richards was the least polished and riskiest of the Angels’ five pre-second round picks in 2009. In his three years at Oklahoma University, he never posted an ERA below six or walked fewer than four batters per nine innings. But the Angels saw enough in a guy who, according to himself, spent his college career without a game plan beyond “just trying to throw the ball over the white thing” to use a valuable pick on him. Looking back at it now, the Angels certainly made the right choice.
Although Richards did not transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation until his final season at Oklahoma, he began his professional career as a starter. And Richards, who nearly stopped playing baseball during college, rose through the Angels’ system remarkably quickly. He dominated Rookie ball in 2009, posting a 1.53 ERA and walking just 2.8% of the batters he faced. He didn’t have any trouble with either level of Single-A the next year, and by 2011, he was facing big-league hitters.
Richards only threw 14 innings in the majors that year, but he became a valuable swingman for the Angels in the following season. The right-hander’s 2012 was split almost evenly between Triple-A and the majors. When in the majors, Richards tossed 71 frames across 30 appearances, nine of which were starts. He fully established himself in the majors in 2013, when he earned a 4.16 ERA in 145 innings.
Richards made a few spot starts at the beginning of 2013, but he spent much of the year in the bullpen. He became a full-time member of the rotation in late July, however. In those final 13 starts, he enjoyed a solid 3.72 ERA and 3.66 FIP with about league-average strikeout and walk numbers. This stretch set up what turned out to be his breakout 2014 campaign.
In 2014, Richards took an unexpected step forward and became the best pitcher the Angels had. By the All-Star break, Richards owned the fourth-best ERA (2.55) among AL starters, and he had tossed at least seven innings in 13 of his 19 starts and fewer than six innings just twice. Richards had transformed into a legitimate ace just as former ace Jered Weaver‘s career was winding down.
Richards continued his dominance after being snubbed from the All-Star game until his season came to an end much too soon. When attempting to cover first base in an August game at Fenway Park, Richards’ left knee buckled as he stepped on the base. He tore his patellar tendon and was forced to undergo season-ending surgery, leaving the first-place Angels without their best pitcher with their most important games still in front of them.
Richards recovered well from the freak injury, going on to tally a career-high 32 starts and 207 1/3 innings in 2015. His run prevention wasn’t nearly as prolific as it was in 2014, though, as he posted a merely average 3.65 ERA. Still, his ability to make it through a full season was an important step in his development as a starting pitcher and after an offseason dedicated to recovery, a decline in performance was not surprising.
Following the 2015 season, the right-hander had a normal winter that he was able to use to focus solely on refining his craft, and the impact was clear. Through six starts, Richards owned a 2.34 ERA. But he was removed from his sixth start in the fifth inning because of “cramping and dehydration.” Richards soon found out that the real source of his discomfort was much more serious–he had a torn ligament in his elbow.
The most common treatment for such an injury is Tommy John surgery, but Richards opted for an innovative alternative called stem-cell therapy. The goal of this method is to use stem cells to stimulate the healing of the ligament, so it does not need to be completely replaced, avoiding the dreaded Tommy John surgery and its long recovery time in the process.
Although the same procedure did not work for teammate Andrew Heaney, who underwent it just a couple of weeks earlier, it did work for Richards. He successfully avoided Tommy John surgery, but he was unable to pitch again in 2016. Still, he was ready for the start of the 2017 season, which was months earlier than he would have been had he chosen Tommy John surgery.
But Richards’ season was short-lived once again. After tossing 4 2/3 scoreless frames, Richards came out of his first start of the season, suffering from what was originally billed a “biceps cramp.” But just like in 2016, it turned out to be a much more serious injury. This time it was nerve irritation in his right arm, and it kept him sidelined for most of the season.
When Richards eventually worked his way back to the majors, he was outstanding, posting a 2.74 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in five September starts. He has been injury-free since and earned the 2018 Opening Day start. Richards has not seen as much success as Skaggs this year, but he has a 3.31 ERA and a 4.06 FIP and is striking out batters at a career-high rate, though he is also walking more batters than he ever has.
Since 2014, perennial Cy Young award contenders Corey Kluber and Chris Sale are the only American League starting pitchers with a better ERA than Richards. The only difference between Richards and those two is the innings total, but the point is that Richards can absolutely be the frontline pitcher the Angels need him to be as long as he stays away from the DL.
The Angels’ used their fifth and final pre-second round pick on Tyler Kehrer, who never made it to the big leagues. But a team hitting on four of its first five picks is a mighty impressive feat, especially considering that they did not make their first selection until the latter half of the first round. This is also not to mention that the Angels took Patrick Corbin, who they packaged with Skaggs in the Haren deal and is in the midst of a breakout season with the Diamondbacks, in the second round.
Remarkably, the first four players the Angels drafted in 2009 have a combined 79.6 career WAR. For perspective, the 44 other players taken before the second round that year have combined for 121.6 career WAR. The Angels’ number is, of course, heavily buoyed by Trout’s historic production, but the 21.2 WAR accumulated by the three others is an impressive mark on its own, seeing as the average of those 44 other players is just 2.8 while the median is barely above zero.
This type of success is simply incredible. Not only did the Angels select one of the best baseball players ever in the first round of the 2009 draft, they also picked two of their best starting pitchers and a talented outfielder who they used to acquire a couple of useful veterans who were part of their most recent postseason run. Of the 25 players currently on the Angels’ active roster, the team drafted just seven of them, and three came from the early stages of this draft.
The first four picks that the Angels made in the 2009 draft truly shifted the direction of the franchise, and the team would certainly not be in the position it is today if it had not nailed each one.
Featured image via Keith Allison/Flickr.