TEMPE, Ariz. In baseball, the term "farm team" means just what it says: a team where players can grow and sprout. It's where with a little cultivation and care young ballplayers become the cream of the crop.
At least that's the case with the Los Angeles Angels farm system. And of the team's seven minor league franchises, two are in Utah: the Salt Lake Bees (AAA) and the Orem Owlz (Advanced Rookie). This March, of the 40 Angels players on their spring roster, 28 had played ball in Utah.
"Throughout the whole farm system, they teach the same things they do at the Major League level," says Howie Kendrick, the Angels' second baseman who played both in Orem and Salt Lake City. "Most of our top draft picks even guys who aren't top picks come up through the system pretty quickly. At all levels we play an aggressive style of baseball. We bunt, we move guys over. Players catch on to that. And those who do get the concept make it quickly to the Major Leagues."
Harold Reynolds, the ESPN analyst, has fond memories of playing for the Salt Lake Gulls back in 1983. He agrees with Kendrick but adds a footnote.
"It all starts with talent," he says. "You can put any system in place, but if you don't have the talent, it's not going to work. And the Angels' farm system has talent. They've done a nice job of scouting and developing their players. They know exactly what type of athlete they're looking for. It's good to have a philosophy that allows guys to make an easy transition from level to level, but you need talent. And the Angels have that."
In 2008, the Angels will be banking on young talent much of it homegrown on the "farms" of Utah. First baseman Casey Kotchman, infielder Chone Figgins and pitcher John Lackey are just three examples. One spot where the Angels do have an embarrassment of riches is at catcher, where former Bees Jeff Mathis, Ryan Budde and Mike Napoli all saw Major League playing time in 2007.
Two young catchers are also being billed as "the future." Anel de Los Santos played with the Orem Owlz last year. He's raised a few eyebrows. And Hank Conger, a young Korean catcher, is seen as the team's top prospect by several observers. (When asked if that put extra pressure on him, he said "yes," but it was a good pressure.)
But the catcher who might surprise everybody this year is Bobby Wilson, a smart and scrappy Floridian who batted .295 for the Salt Lake Bees in 40 games last year. In spring ball he earned several starts and was impressive. He hopes to earn more.
"That's the goal," he says, "to get to the Major Leagues. You learn a lot from playing with guys whose main goal is winning. Being a catcher here is competitive guys here are the best but that's what you look for. The thing about the group is we're all sort of tight-knit. We watch out for each other. Everybody's helping everybody else because the goal is to win."
As for other rising stars with local ties, Brandon Wood who played with the Provo Angels of the Pioneer League in 2003 and batted .272 with the Bees last year is listed by Baseball America as the top one to watch. Shortstop Sean Rodriguez a Utah double-dipper and two former Owlz, Sean O'Sullivan and Stephen Marek, are also listed in the Top 10.
The talent is there. Now it's about timing and attitude. As former Bee Chone Figgins told the Deseret Morning News last year, there's no such thing as standing still. You either improve each day or you fall back. (Figgins, of course, could well "improve" himself into an American League all-star this year.) And Reggie Willits was bold enough to predict his friends back in Salt Lake City would all be Angels in time.
Most players remember their Utah years with fondness. Kendrick, for his part, stayed with the Chuck Barber family when he played in Orem. He also stayed there when he was moved up to Triple-A Salt Lake City. More than a place to crash, his stay in Utah was a time for making lifelong friends.
"The Barbers are great people," he says. "They were my host family in 2003. Every time I come back to Utah, I hang out with them. Sometimes you meet people in life you really get along with. And they're the type of people I like. Their youngest son actually plays junior college baseball. I know during the season they'll come to Anaheim and we'll catch up. They're the kind of people I always want to stay in touch with."Nobody, of course, wants to stay "down on the farm" especially after they've been to "the show." But sometimes, you can take the player out of the farm system, but a little bit of the farm system will always stay with them, wherever they go.