The Los Angeles Angels' draft success is making the Salt Lake Bees a Pacific Coast League title contender

First-round picks Taylor Ward and Matt Thaiss have climbed through the system.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r The Salt Lake Bees' Taylor Ward and Matt Thais get ready to take the field against Las Vegas, July 17, 2018. The two infielders are thriving in their first Triple-A seasons and their success show that the Los Angeles Angels' farm system is working again.

Taylor Ward got his promotion from Orem and hit I-15, soon glimpsing the lights of Smith’s Ballpark, on his way to the airport. Next stop: Burlington, Iowa, the smallest town in America that fields a full-season professional baseball team.

The 38 miles from Orem to Salt Lake City represent a long trek in the Los Angeles Angels' organization, spanning three levels of pro baseball. Smith's Ballpark is not the players' ultimate destination, but it is a meaningful checkpoint in the journey from the rookie-league Owlz to the majors.

As he sat in the dugout last week, Ward remembered that drive in the summer of 2015, when he pictured himself playing for Salt Lake. “You know it’s likely a long road away,” he said.

Ward is here now. Matt Thaiss arrived even sooner. They’re thriving with the Bees (54-47), a team tied with El Paso for the lead in their division of the Pacific Coast League as they open a seven-game homestand Tuesday vs. Memphis.

Ward, Thaiss and other players including infielder David Fletcher (now with the Angels) and outfielder Michael Hermosillo symbolize the rebirth of a farm system that in recent years was judged the worst in Major League Baseball. The minor-league website MiLB.com gave the Angels an “A” grade for the system’s overall performance in the first half of the season.

“You look back a couple years ago, I don't know if you want to say it was down … but [now] we have a lot of really good, young ballplayers and it's fun to play with them,” Thaiss said.

Angels general manager Billy Eppler is credited with shrewd drafting and a rebuilding of the organization to a point where prospects are beginning to help the big-league club — and the Bees, even more. Salt Lake’s roster is becoming organic again. “We have guys that have come through our system, getting up here,” Bees manager Keith Johnson said.

More rising stars are on the way — notably Jo Adell, an outfielder for Class-A Inland Empire who appeared in the recent All-Star Futures Game. Johnson was part of the coaching staff. “He fit right in with that group,” Johnson said. “The stage wasn’t too big for him, the lights weren’t too bright.”

That description applies to Ward and Thaiss in Triple-A ball. Ward, a third baseman from Fresno State, and Thaiss, a first baseman from the University of Virginia, are both converted catchers who were first-round draft choices. The Angels persuaded them to learn new positions as a way to get to the major leagues sooner, while focusing on hitting as opposed to everything that’s involved with catching. That also means adjusting to a entirely different view of the game and becoming adequate infielders.

“They’re coming along nicely,” Johnson said. “Offensively, they’re ready for this level, without a doubt. There’s a lot of things they need to experience … in as short a time as possible.”

ANGELS' LADDER: Minor-league batting averages for the Salt Lake Bees' Taylor Ward and Matt Thaiss:  <br>Ward – <br>2015 – Orem, .349; Burlington, .348. <br>2016 – Inland Empire, .249. <br>2017 – Inland-Empire, 242; Mobile, .286. <br>2018 – Mobile, .345; Salt Lake, .352.  <br>Thaiss – <br>2016 – Orem, .338; Burlington, .276. <br>2017 – Inland Empire, .265; Mobile, .292. <br>2018 – Mobile, .287; Salt Lake, .287.

Thaiss, promoted from Double-A Mobile in late May, enjoyed a five-hit game at Colorado Springs in June and is batting .287 with eight homers and 29 RBIs in 49 games.

Thaiss was drafted barely more than two years ago. Even during his rapid climb to Triple-A, pro baseball has produced some trying moments. “Everyone's going to run into that, whether it's one play, a game, a week, a month,” he said. “It's all about how you respond to that. Once you start doubting yourself, that's when you run into trouble.”

Ward, before slumping this past weekend, had become one of the hottest hitters in pro baseball since joining the Bees. He went 1 for 12 with eight strikeouts in a three-game series at Tacoma — including four K’s in four plate appearances Saturday. Even so, Ward is batting .352 with seven homers and 27 RBIs in 42 games.

He’s hitting .366 at Smith’s Ballpark, where he hopes to rediscover his swing this week.