The first week of January in eastern Iowa brought the worst weather winter had to offer so far: snow, sub-zero temps, and wind chills that reached as low as -35. But on Friday night, the annual Friends of the Burlington Bees Winter Banquet allowed over 350 local baseball fans to think ahead a little to spring.
Burlington is beginning its third season as the Class-A Midwest League affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, and for the third year in the row the parent club sent one of its top executives to speak at the hot stove dinner. Bobby Scales (Director, Player Development) was the guest speaker in 2013, General Manager Jerry DiPoto had the honors in 2014, and this year's keynote address was delivered by Scott Servais, Assistant General Manager.
After an auction of a few donated items, the program began with a presentation by the Zaiser family, who was the host family for Angels prospect Victor Alcantara last season. Alcantara, the Angels' #7 prospect coming into the 2015 season according to Baseball America, came to Burlington last April knowing little English and even less about the Midwest. Zaiser and his wife and kids spoke virtually no Spanish, but took on the challenge (with the aid of an app that translated Spanish to English). Zaiser spoke highly of the experience, which included the opportunity for the family to accompany Alcantara to the Futures Game in Minneapolis. By the end of the season, the family viewed Victor as one of their sons and found it tough to say goodbye when they took him to the airport in early September.
As they noted in their presentation and later acknowledged by Servais, the Host Family program is viewed as essential by the Angels organization, particularly at the lower levels. Because of the relatively low salaries for minor leaguers, the players benefit greatly from not having to pay rent for the five months they're in town. The players also have a stable living environment to go home to at night. Servais noted that he had asked the Bees to solidify their host family program after their first season as an affiliate and they stepped up and did a great job of finding responsible families. He indicated that the program, along with an outstanding playing surface and facilities, helped the two sides reach an extension of their Player Development Contract through 2016.
The topic then switched to the organization's minor league system. Servais mentioned the Angels' emphasis on pitching in the past couple of amateur drafts, including taking hurlers with the first five picks last June, and nine of the top 10 in 2013. Servais said that the only way the Angels can sustain success at the major league level from here on out is primarily through the minor leagues, and that "winning is important at all levels". As for an organizational philosophy, Servais wants his managers and coaches to "create a positive environment, teach them to be professional, teach the game, and teach them how to compete." He then wants the staffs to evaluate the players as honestly as possible and communicate with the management.
Servais then talked about what Bees fans could expect to see in Burlington in 2015. He mentioned Sean Newcomb, the lefty pitcher who made a few late-season starts for the Bees last year, including one in the playoffs. Servais indicated that is was likely Newcomb (the #1 prospect in the Angels' system according to Baseball America) could begin the season in Burlington, as well as Hunter Green, the second-round pick in the 2013 draft. Chris Ellis, a third-rounder in 2014 from Ole Miss is another possibility. Servais mentioned third baseman Zach Houchins and shortstop Jake Yacinich will likely start on the left side of the Bees infield. Yacinich, an 8th-rounder from the University of Iowa, was in attendance at the banquet and will likely be a fan favorite because of his University of Iowa ties. Servais noted the nice run for the Orem Owlz in 2014 and that many of these players would start the 2015 season with the Bees.
The other member of the 2015 Bees at the banquet was new manager, Chad Tracy. Chad is the son of former major league player and manager Jim Tracy. A third-round pick out of Pepperdine in 2006, he is beginning his first year as a minor league manager after a long minor league playing career primarily with the Texas Rangers. He also played briefly in the Rockies, Royals, and Orioles minor league systems before retiring after the 2014 season. Servais indicated that he has had his eye on Tracy as a future manager and has "been chasing him for two years," due to Tracy's knowledge of the game. Tracy said he looks forward to sharing his experiences with the young minor leaguers in his charge, and that "it has always been a passion of mine to be a leader of young men." He laughed about often being confused with "the other Chad Tracy," who has had a long major league career, including a quick stint with the Angels this past Spring Training. Tracy was asked by several autograph seekers in the audience Friday night to sign baseball cards of "the other Chad," but politely pointed out the difference.
With the home opener just three months away, the banquet allowed area fans a glimpse of what to expect from an improving Angels minor league system, as well as raising tens of thousands of dollars for the Friends of Community Field to put back into stadium improvements and other projects. And it also gave everyone a taste of summer on a brutal January night.
For more updates on the Los Angeles Angels, their prospects, affiliates and our Top 100 Prospects Countdown, follow us on Twitter, @AngelsOnScout.
Dave Bohnenkamp is an Affiliate Contributor for InsideTheHalos.com, and can be found on Twitter, @PenaltyBoxBones.