With Angel prospect Kendry Morales about to assume the role of full-time first baseman, and pressure already beginning to mount, we thought we’d take a look into the Angel past to see exactly what historical comparisons could be drawn from prior Angels who had come to the Majors after minor league success and amid lofty expectations.
Since Morales has, as they say, proven everything possible at every minor league level, it is no doubt time to give him his shot. Of course, it’s not as though the organization has much choice in the matter, either, having lost Casey Kotchman to trade and Mark Teixeira to free agency. It’s not as if handing the job to Robb Quinlan was ever a serious consideration.
But every organization is filled with stories of can’t miss prospects, guys who rose quickly and successfully through the minor leagues and upon whom tremendous pressure was placed when they arrived in the Majors.
Kendry Morales is but the current iteration of Angel prospects expected to produce quickly. Unfortunately, at least as many of these prospects fail as succeed. In a game wrought with inherent failure, could anything else be expected?
Morales’ meteoric success in the Angels’ farm system got us to thinking about another young Angel who found incredible success in the minors nearly a quarter century ago, a player whose ultimate Angel demise may have been more the product of unrealistic expectations than outright failure.
In 1985, Jack Howell had utterly destroyed Pacific Coast League pitching, posting a .373/.470/.609 line that tantalized Angel management and fans as a harbinger of offense in Anaheim. Howell, it seemed to all, was the Angels’ third baseman of the future.
With Doug DeCinces firmly entrenched at third base for the Angels, though, it was unclear at the time how Howell would fit in.
Jack Howell debuted for the then California Angels late in that 1985 season, appearing in 43 games. But it was evident that DeCinces could be blocking Howell for a few years still. Given DeCinces’ stature, Angel management had to be careful, probably wondering whether Howell was for real.
A .359/.490/.564 season for Edmonton in 1986, however, suggested that he was no fluke, and that he had nothing left to prove at AAA. Howell played so well in Edmonton in 1986 that he forced himself into a part-time role on the infamous ‘86 Angel team, playing in 63 games and posting a line of .272/.349/.470.
Still, DeCinces reigned at third base for the Angels, even placing 11th in the MVP voting that year. Howell’s future with the Angels remained unclear but one thing was certain; the team needed to find a way to get Howell significant at-bats.
In 1987, the Angels did just that, rotating Howell through a variety of defensive positions (LF, 3B, RF, and 2B) in order that the team’s best young prospect got a chance to prove himself.
Despite playing out of position for most of that 1987 season (he played more games in the outfield than he did at his natural third base), Howell managed to put together a serviceable season, posting a line of .245/.331/.461 in 449 at-bats while banging out 23 home runs.
Late in that 1987 season, the Angels’ front office gave Howell the ultimate vote of confidence, granting the aging DeCinces his outright release. With his first full time season behind him, and third base awaiting him in 1988, Howell was expected to build on his early success to become the Angels’ third baseman for many years to come.
In 1988, Howell produced an offensive season somewhat similar (.254/.323/.422) to his 1987 campaign, but he struggled defensively, committing 17 errors as the regular third baseman. He also struck out 130 times and hit 7 less home runs in 51 more at-bats. Fans and management began to grow impatient with their “can’t-miss” prospect.
In 1989, Howell rebounded defensively (leading AL third baseman in fielding percentage) but, unfortunately, regressed at the plate. He managed to reach 20 home runs, but his average dipped to .228 and fans, twenty years prior to the popularity of OPS+, simply couldn’t tolerate that, especially given the 125 strikeouts that Howell posted that season. His 1989 line of .228/.308/.411 represented a third straight year of regression, permanently ruffling fans and management.
1989 would prove to be Howell’s last full season as the Angels’ starting third baseman, as further offensive regression early in 1990 led to the Rick Schu experiment.
In 1991 Howell found himself benched in favor of Gary Gaetti (who posted numbers at third base for the Angels that made Howell look like Eddie Matthews) before being traded to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Shawn Abner.
Howell became a mere footnote to Angel history, perhaps unfairly labeled as the can’t miss prospect who missed, in the process becoming for many Angel fans the prima facie example of why minor league numbers are irrelevant.
Howell persevered, though, and went on to have some incredible offensive seasons in Japan, even winning the Central League batting title, and MVP, in 1992.
He returned to the US, and to the Angels, in 1996, setting the team record for pinch-hit home runs in a season (4) as a reliable left-handed bat off the bench and a versatile defensive substitute (a role he reprised in 1997).
Howell retired in 1999 after two seasons as a part-time player for the Houston Astros.
Jack Howell may always be remembered as a highly touted prospect that never lived up to his potential, but he was better than most fans gave him credit for in those years. Unfortunately for him, he could simply never live up to the expectations created by his incredible minor league career.
We have no real way of predicting how Kendry Morales will respond to similar expectations but we do know from experience that fans and management should probably give Morales the latitude necessary to succeed.
While Howell’s Angel tenure was frustrating in many ways, it was certainly no more maddening than witnessing the subsequent years of Rick Schu and Gary Gaetti.
Prospects need the freedom to fail sometimes, in order that they can learn how to succeed. Kendry Morales takes over at first base for the Angels in 2009 as Jack Howell took over at third in 1988, with an urgency borne of his own talent and success.
Of course, Kendry may have even more pressure being placed on him in 2009 than Howell did in ’88. After all, the Angels are a winning team these days. Still, it’s hard not to compare the two, and harder still to keep it all in proper perspective.