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Angels on the rise

L.A. team banking on prospects who got professional start in Provo

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Tom Kotchman stole a few glances at the Orioles-Angels game on the clubhouse TV while fielding questions about some of his former players.

But when asked which of the Angels' top prospects will soon make an impact on the major league level, his answer was anything but distracted.

"All of them," the Orem Owlz manager said, "if there's room."

With the Los Angeles Angels in the middle of a pennant race, there's not much room on the big club's roster for prospects. But the pipeline is full. Since 2001, when the Pioneer League club came to Provo, the talent in the organization has been flowing out of Utah County. Three former Provo players have been significant contributors for the parent club. Several other highly regarded prospects who started out in Provo are rising through the system.

Whether the fans know it or not, Utah County has been witness to one of the most prosperous and productive farm systems in all of baseball.

According to Baseball America, the Los Angeles Angels have the best talent in the game. The publication ranked the Angels No. 1 in its 2005 organizational talent rankings. Six players in the system, five of whom played in Provo, appear on the top 100 prospects list. Only the Dodgers, with seven, have more.

And the roster the Pioneer League club made its Utah County debut with in 2001 is a big reason why the Angels' system is so respected.

"That club right there, when they were all here and healthy, that's probably the most talented team we've ever had in a short season," Kotchman said.

The team that went 53-23 featured third baseman Dallas McPherson, who has shuttled back and forth between the Los Angeles Angeles in the bigs and the Salt Lake Stingers at the AAA level.

Also, Ervin Santana (6-5, 4.91 ERA), who pitched four games for Provo, is now a regular in the Angels' rotation and considered the club's best pitching prospect. Jake Woods (1-1, 4.55), a four-game winner for Provo, has been the only left-hander in the Los Angeles bullpen this year.

Three other players from that team — Casey Kotchman, Jeff Mathis and Steven Shell — are among the Angels' top 10 prospects, according to both Baseball America and FutureAngels.com.

Casey Kotchman, widely considered the organization's top prospect, played only seven games for his father in 2001 due to contract negotiations and injury. He made his major league debut in 2004, but he's spent most of 2005 in Triple-A. Kotchman had a stellar July for the Stingers (.318, seven HRs, 18 RBIs). He rejoined the Angels last week and, after struggling to get his first big league hit of the season, hit three home runs — including a grand slam — in a three-game series against Tampa Bay.

The 22-year-old Kotchman has yet to earn a regular spot in the Angels' lineup, but he's still the organization's top talent, said Stephen C. Smith, Web master for Futureangels.com.

"To put things in perspective, the Angels this year drafted players who are older than Casey," Smith said. "People tend to forget how young Casey was when he was drafted."

That 2001 draft, when Kotchman was selected No. 13 overall, was a deep one, according to Smith.

"The Angels certainly took advantage of that," Smith said. "Part of it was that Casey Kotchman . . . they were very lucky to get him because he was considered the best-hitting high school prospect in the country . . . (In other years), he probably would not have been available at No. 13."

After drafting Kotchman, the Angels made good on their next four picks, taking Mathis, McPherson, Shell and Woods in Rounds 2-5, respectively. They all contributed to the 2001 Provo Angels, and their impact could be felt on the big-league level for years to come.

Smith calls Mathis (.282, 15 HRs, 57 RBIs for Salt Lake) a "natural leader" and expects him to be the starting catcher

for Los Angeles in two or three years. Woods has pitched 27.2 innings in the majors this year. Shell is 8-7 with a 4.20 ERA in 22 games for Double-A Arkansas..

"In the last month or so, (Shell's) been one of the best pitchers in the league," Smith said. "You'll certainly see Shell in Triple-A next year."

McPherson is just now returning from an injury that forced him to miss most of July. The slugger had a poor April but managed eight home runs over the next two months, hitting one in three straight games in May. But the rookie has struggled with his average (.244) and strikeouts (64 in 61 games) and was recently returned to AAA Salt Lake.

According to Tom Kotchman, McPherson, a left-handed hitter who kept trying to pull the ball when playing in Provo, has rare opposite-field power.

"I told him, 'Keep hitting it 500 feet to left field. Who cares?' " Kotchman said.

For fans catching the Provo Angels' second act in 2002, it was hard to miss the dazzling double-play combination of Alberto Callaspo and Erick Aybar. The pair routinely made spectacular defensive plays at Larry H. Miller Field.

"In 26 years, I've never seen a double-play combination like them," Kotchman said.

The duo has been divided, however. Callaspo is hitting .278 in 22 games with Salt Lake, while Aybar, the No. 39 overall prospect on Baseball America's list, is hitting .287 in 108 games at Arkansas.

But there's another double-play combo in the organization. Two other top prospects, Brandon Wood (83rd overall prospect by Baseball America) and Howard Kendrick, are also middle infielders — and posting impressive numbers this season.

Wood was the Angels' top overall pick in 2003. His first year in Provo was unspectacular, but this season, he's hitting .311 with 35 home runs in 107 games with Single-A Rancho Cucamonga.

Kendrick, a 10th-round pick who hit .368 for Provo, is hitting .325 in 20 games with Arkansas.

According to Smith, the odds are good that these former Provo players will be at the heart of the Los Angeles Angels' roster in the future. But, as Casey Kotchman is finding out, roster spots can be hard to come by on a team his father calls "stacked." The organization seems to have a surplus of middle infield talent, and players like Orlando Cabrera, Adam Kennedy, Darin Erstad and Bengie Molina are holding down key positions, as far as these prospects are concerned.

That can change quickly, though.

Last offseason, the Angels let World Series MVP Troy Glaus go to make room for McPherson. Injuries play a part in such decisions as do economics, according to Smith. Younger players are cheaper.

Ultimately, if players like Callaspo, Aybar, Wood and Kendrick can hit at each level, they'll find their way onto the big-league roster.

"If they can hit in the big leagues, another position will be found for them," Smith said. "When you have very athletic players, you can move them around . . .

"It's only when those players . . . are ready to force themselves onto a big-league roster that the Angels will find a spot for them."

E-mail: ashill@desnews.com

A look at former Provo players who are highly regarded prospects in the Angels organization:

Player With Provo Now Rank

Casey Kotchman 2001 Los Angeles 1

Ervin Santana 2001 Los Angeles 7

Jake Woods 2001 Los Angeles —

Dallas McPherson 2001 Salt Lake (AAA) 2

Alberto Callaspo 2002 Salt Lake (AAA) 9

Jeff Mathis 2001 Salt Lake (AAA) 4

Erick Aybar 2002 Arkansas (AA) 3

Howard Kendrick 2003 Arkansas (AA) 8

Steven Shell 2001 Arkansas (AA) 10

Brandon Wood 2003 Rancho (A) 6

Note: Prospect rankings are by Baseball America.