Sandoval hopes to learn from Castilla
Angels prospect vying to occupy Mexican hot corner in Classic
Vinny Castilla, now the manager of the Mexican National Team preparing for the World Baseball Classic, was 27 when he firmly established himself as a full-time big league third baseman.
That could serve as a good model for Angels third baseman Freddy Sandoval, who's made his way up the Los Angeles ladder, making his Major League debut last September at age 26.
If all goes well, the 2004 eighth-round pick out of the University of San Diego will be able to learn directly from Castilla as part of Mexico's Classic squad. All signs point to that possibility as Sandoval went 4-for-19 for Mexico in the Caribbean Series.
The switch-hitter has made slow and steady progress in the Angels system, leading to the best year of his career last season in Triple-A, where he set career highs in average, slugging, home runs and RBIs, among other offensive categories. But it's not just with the bat that he's shown improvement.
"He's improved in his all-around game," Angels farm director Abe Flores said. "He's improved defensively. He's not making as many careless errors. He has all the tools to be a very good defensive player, but he can be careless, not setting up his feet. He's worked hard at that.
"Offensively, he knows his game and he plays it well. He gets on base, moves runners. Sometimes he'll look a little overmatched, but then he'll get you. He's a real baseball player. He's just gotten better over time. He's improved his deficiencies."
That, in turn, could help Mexico overcome one of its deficiencies: good young talent. Sure, there are players in the big leagues from the country, and even some position players, like Jorge Cantu, but the talent has largely been on the mound (see Valenzuela, Fernando, or to a lesser extent, Perez, Oliver). And there are few Minor League prospects who hail from Mexico. Perhaps Sandoval is the one who'll be able to take the torch from Castilla in some fashion.
"He could, he has the chance to be a regular," Flores said. "I couldn't reel off a bunch [of hitters]. There's pitching that's come from there, but there hasn't been a bunch of position players."
Whether Sandoval is one of the position players on Mexico's final roster remains to be seen, and he might have to fight for time with Cantu. It might help that Sandoval, while focusing on the hot corner, also has moved around a bit, particularly last year. He saw time at first and second base, versatility that could prove useful as Mexico tries to advance from Pool B with a decided home-country advantage (games are being played in Mexico City).
The Angels, for their part, are all for Sandoval getting the chance.
"What a great opportunity for him and for us," Flores said. "We'll reap the benefits of that experience, playing against high-level competition, with it all on the line on a nightly basis. We love those opportunities for our players, as long as it doesn't put them in some sort of health risk. There's nothing in camp that we can do to duplicate that."
Kevin Ramos is a Panamanian-born middle infielder who made his Angels debut as a non-drafted free agent out of Kentucky's Union College last year. Playing mostly second base, but also some shortstop, the 22-year-old hit .319 over 40 games in the Rookie-level Arizona League. He stole nine bases and had seven triples (good for third in the league).
SS Hainley Statia had a bit of a lost season in 2008, missing all but 59 games due to a hamstring injury. The Curacao native would like to make amends by playing well for the Netherlands in the Classic, then getting back on the map in the Angels organization, which did not protect him on the 40-man roster this past offseason. Statia appeard in two Classic games in 2006, going 2-for-5 with a pair of RBIs.
Australian RHP Rich Thompson made his big league debut in September 2007, looked like he had a shot at being a part of the big-league 'pen for good in 2008 but didn't quite get there, appearing in a handful of games before missing most of the Minor League season. He appeared in the 2006 Classic, pitching in one game and allowing two runs in 1 1/3 innings.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.