At this stage of the baseball season, the current version of the Salt Lake Bees features mainly fill-in players and leftovers.
Everybody who’s big-league material is in Anaheim. The system’s highly drafted prospects remain with Double-A Arkansas. The combination leaves Salt Lake’s product stuck at the top of a minor-league system that’s being rebuilt.
Yet there’s just something about the Bees that will make them worth watching, for as long as the PCL playoffs last.
These guys pieced together a division-title season amid more than the usual comings and goings of this level of minor-league baseball. And then they rallied for a 4-3 victory over Las Vegas in Wednesday night’s Game 1 of the Pacific Conference playoffs at Spring Mobile Ballpark, winning via Matt Long’s ninth-inning homer that sailed just inside and beyond the foul pole that stands 315 feet from the plate in right field.
“It was good placement, if anything,” Long said.
And standard stuff for this team. “It’s fitting,” said manager Keith Johnson. “That’s the way we’ve played all year. We just grind it out.”
This season, it almost has seemed as if the Angels were fielding a Triple-A team just because the rules mandated it — or just so they could stash some reserve players a 90-minute flight from Anaheim.
The flow of talent in the system basically stops in Arkansas, where former University of Utah star C.J. Cron — who homered twice Wednesday in a Texas League playoff opener — and fellow first-round picks Taylor Lindsey, Randal Grichuk and Kaleb Cowart have spent the whole season, with mixed results.
That makes the Bees a collection of older players who came from other organizations and are getting another shot and homegrown players who likely will never advance past Triple-A with the Angels.
Somehow, Johnson has made it work — which is a credit to him and the players who have stayed interested, for their own sake and the team’s. The Bees went 78-66 in the regular season and are positioning themselves for another run at a PCL title in the franchise’s 20th season.
“Ideally, you’d like to have all your guys come through the system and have all of them be 22, 23 in Triple-A. That’s not where we are as an organization,” said Bobby Scales, the Angels’ director of player development, who attended the playoff opener. “We do have veteran guys that have done a nice job for us this year. … Triple-A can be really good if you’ve got the right bunch of guys in the clubhouse or it can be really bad if you’ve got the wrong bunch. I’ve been on both sides of that. Obviously, with the results we’ve seen here this year, it’s gone really well because you’ve got the right guys.”
Long, 26, is one of the few current Bees who still may have an outside chance to make it through the Angels’ system, all the way to Anaheim. A former 30th-round draft choice, he started the 2013 season in Arkansas and was promoted to the Bees a month later.
Matt Shoemaker, Wednesday’s starting pitcher, likely is stuck at this level. But he’s as valuable as any player on this team, with an uncanny ability to eat up innings. Game 1 was a classic example, as the right-hander labored through six innings, yet kept his team in the game. Having started 30 games, he’s lasted six or more innings in 25 of them and led the PCL in regular-season innings pitched (184.1).
“His competitive nature has gotten him a lot further than he should have, on pure talent,” Johnson said before the game. “He’s just grinded it out over the course of his career.”
And then Shoemaker lived up to those words again, followed by three relievers whose scoreless work enabled the Bees to tie the game in the eighth and win with two outs in the ninth.
Long enjoyed every bit of his short homer and the triumphant trip around the bases. “I mean, it was awesome,” he said. “Anytime you hit a walk-off hit, it’s exciting.”
These guys may not be future Angels, necessarily, but what they’re doing in the present in Salt Lake City is good stuff.