The Angels' all-pitcher draft was a historical curiosity; it also didn't work

ANAHEIM, Calif. —The Los Angeles Angels have long denied that they planned to select a pitcher with each and every one of their 20 picks in the 2021 MLB Draft. They knew they needed pitching. Those in charge said, however, it wouldn’t prevent them from taking the best available players.

But as pick after pick, round after round passed, it was painfully obvious what Los Angeles was doing: The franchise was addressing its pitching deficiency by any means necessary, even if it meant ignoring all else.

Perry Minasian’s four-year tenure as Angels general manager has largely been defined by statement moves. From designating Albert Pujols for assignment to firing Joe Maddon to putting six prominent players on irrevocable waivers to calling up a first-round pick after just 22 minor league games, Minasian is not afraid of bucking consensus.

The 2021 draft was among the first examples. It was the talk of the sport as it played out as a historical curiosity in real-time, as the Angels let the world know that pitching was going to become a priority in a way no franchise ever had before.

“It got to a point where you almost have to laugh and you go, ‘You know what? Let’s just keep going,’ said then-scouting director Matt Swanson in July 2021.

When asked if taking 19-of-20 collegiate pitchers served as a way to replenish the system with near-MLB-ready talent, he said, “Yeah, sure. I think that’s fair.”

What remained to be seen was whether it was actually a good idea.

Three years later, that all-pitcher draft has largely been a flop. The idea of acquiring near-MLB-ready talent didn’t materialize. The Angels have no organizational pitching pipeline. And it doesn’t appear, as of now, that the infamous 2021 draft will be of any help in that regard.

Angels GM Minasian and farm director Joey Prebynski each declined an interview request for this story. Swanson, who remains a senior advisor with the team, did not respond to an interview request; neither did Angels’ minor league pitching coordinator Dom Chiti.

The Athletic spoke with talent evaluators in the sport and others in the organization to analyze how this historic draft stands up years later.

“When you take that many pitchers, you really hope someone pops,” said Baseball America editor-in-chief J.J. Cooper. “Where you say, ‘That guy really took a step forward.’ That Angels draft class doesn’t really seem to have a whole lot of those guys.”

Only two pitchers from 2021 have debuted with the Angels, first-rounder Sam Bachman and 11th-rounder Chase Silseth. Both pitchers sustained debilitating injuries, and both have since been optioned to the minors.

Three 2021 draftees were traded away last season in the Angels’ flawed and futile attempt at a playoff berth. Second-rounder Ky Bush was a part of the deal that acquired Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez — who were subsequently put on waivers weeks later. Third-rounder Landon Marceaux was dealt to acquire Eduardo Escobar, who posted a .563 OPS and is now out of baseball. Twelfth-rounder Mason Albright was sent to the Rockies in the C.J. Cron-Randal Grichuk trade. Cron was hurt. Grichuk hit just .216.

Of the remaining 15 picks, none rank among The Athletic’s Keith Law’s top 20 organizational prospects, in what is considered a weak system. Seventh-rounder Ryan Costieu, is in the Angels’ Top 30 prospects on MLB pipeline. Another draftee, Marcelo Perez, is ranked there as the Seattle Mariners’ No. 25 prospect after he bypassed signing with the Angels.

Three of the remaining 13 are no longer playing affiliated baseball. The rest are mostly considered organizational roster filler.

“Everyone was talking about it obviously. I didn’t like it,” A rival team’s Angels scout said of the draft. “But I was like, ‘If they get the right guys, they might look like geniuses.

“But if that doesn’t happen, then you start looking around at who else was drafted that year. And who you passed on because you just wanted to get a pitcher.”

The full story of the 2021 draft is yet to be written; three years is not enough time to fully assess. Still, other teams have already received major league dividends from some of their selections. The Mariners picked Bryan Woo and Bryce Miller. The A’s took All-Star closer Mason Miller and infielder Zack Gelof. Cleveland took Gavin Williams and Tanner Bibee, while the Reds hit on Matt McLain and Andrew Abbott early.

Even the Astros — who had no first or second-round picks that year — got Joey Loperfido, Spencer Arighetti and Chayce McDermott, the last of whom now ranks as the Orioles’ top pitching prospect.

There was a chance to build a solid foundation that year. It just didn’t happen.

The scout said that Silseth still has a ceiling as a No. 2 starter, with Bachman slightly behind that. Costieu has starter potential, the scout said, but not at the level of Silseth or Bachman. Others could make the Majors. Reliever Eric Torres, for example, is being discussed for a call-up.

But as for the system as a whole, the scout said, “It’s still not there.”

“Almost every team has that success story of, ‘This is our 12th rounder and nobody thought he was going to be anything, and now he’s contributing in the big leagues.’ I don’t know the last time they had that.”

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Sam Bachman remains one of the Angels pitchers who could blossom from the 2021 draft. (Jonathan Hui / USA TODAY)

The vast majority of players selected will not reach the big leagues in any draft. Even fewer will have big league success. If a team hits on three players in any given draft, it’s largely a success.

The question here is if the Angels will hit on any player. That stands when drafting high-level college players comes with the purpose of succeeding more on quantity, rather than quality. And with disregard for selecting any hitters.

“Like most all things,” one longtime amateur scouting executive said of the Angels’ 2021 draft, “balanced and well-rounded is usually best.”

Bachman and Silseth remain the two most likely to find their footing. Costieu is in that mix, but he’s still in High A after recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Silseth was recently optioned following a rehab assignment, then taken out of the Triple-A rotation amid prolonged struggles and inconsistent velocity. He’s shown flashes of being a very solid big-league pitcher. But his future is uncertain.

Bachman missed the second half of last year with a shoulder injury, and has endured back spasms the last couple seasons. His velocity has also been inconsistent.

In his last start — six strong innings in Double A — his fastball averaged 95.5 miles per hour. Internally, there’s optimism that he’s close to being ready.

While he is headed in the right direction, it is unclear if the former No. 9 overall pick can be a successful and consistently healthy big-league starting pitcher. Evaluators are unsure of his ability to remain a starter.

“Bachman’s fastball is 95-96 and doesn’t miss bats, he’s slider heavy now” said Law, The Athletic’s draft and minor league expert. “They might have the worst farm system in baseball. I don’t think there’s anyone left from 2021 who projects as more than a middle reliever.”

The Angels organization has made significant changes to its pitching development within the last year. It let go of its top minor league pitching coordinators. The purpose, those around the team have said, was to become less driven by analytics.

Pitching coach Barry Enright operates in the middle ground of analytics and feel. He’s also emphasized keeping up with organizational arms, and having a consistent strategy and open communication amongst the affiliates.

A rival scout noted that the Angels have a very limited scouting department, which could impact the organization’s ability to properly analyze talent.

Enright, however, is keen on improving the development piece.

“There needs to be a foundation set,” he said. “And sometimes you have to take steps back before you take steps forward. We all sure as heck want to win here. We all sure as heck want to win in the minor leagues. I don’t think it’s just going to happen overnight. There has to be some type of foundation set.”

The 2022 Rocket City Trash Pandas represented a change for the Angels. At least, it appeared that way. They were the first Angels affiliate to reach the postseason in five years.

They went 81-57 — dominating the whole season.

“When they did that (draft), they needed it,” Silseth said of acquiring pitching. “We came into a system, looking around, seeing what was around us, I think it was really helpful in that area. In Rocket City, in 2022, that pitching core was that thing.

“But (last year), we were in a playoff race and we wanted to go buy some guys and try to make the playoffs. It’s just unfortunate, because we’ve been so close.”

For a time, it looked like the 2021 draft had worked. Like the plan was coming together. Bachman, Torres, Bush, Silseth, Luke Murphy, Nick Jones, Mason Erla and others from that draft buoyed their club to the top of the Double-A standings.

That optimism has waned. That potential pipeline has dried up. And the Angels, three years later, are back where they started. With one of the weakest farm systems in the sport.

The Athletic’s Chad Jennings contributed to this article.

(Top photo of Silseth: Bob Levey / Getty Images)

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