Major League Baseball

Meet the Los Angeles Angels slugger tasked with replacing Albert Pujols

May 13

By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer

Out with one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, in with the former 39th rounder.

That was the decision the Los Angeles Angels made a week ago when they designated Albert Pujols for assignment.

In some ways, it was an obvious one: the 41-year-old future first-ballot Hall of Famer has declined sharply in recent years and is in the final year of his contract with Anaheim.

It’s no surprise that the Angels had better alternatives to slot into their lineup regularly at first base and/or designated hitter.

Angels general manager Perry Minasian said it himself:

We all know about Shohei Ohtani. But who the heck is Jared Walsh? It’s one thing for Pujols to pass the torch to a world-famous generational superfreak talent, but who’s that other guy Minasian mentioned and what has he done to warrant kicking a baseball legend to the curb?

A former 13th-rounder himself, perhaps Pujols of all people would understand how a late-round pick could blossom into a big-league star.

But Pujols immediately shredded every pitcher put in front of him as soon as he arrived in pro ball. It took him less than two years to go from late-round pick to Rookie of the Year and perennial MVP candidate.

Walsh’s ascent was a bit more gradual than The Machine’s ⁠— and the 39th round is a whole lot later than the 13th.

That said, if you time-traveled back to where Jared Walsh was in 2013 ⁠— heading into his junior year at the University of Georgia ⁠— you would see a player who checked a lot of boxes for someone with big-league aspirations.

Unique talent? Check. Walsh was a two-way player for the Bulldogs and just posted a .744 OPS and 3.35 ERA as a sophomore.

Tested against the best competition? Check. Not only was he performing in the SEC, but he also just put up a 1.06 ERA in the prestigious Cape Cod League with a Cotuit team that featured 11 other future big-leaguers.

At that point, you could reasonably project Walsh to be selected as a left-handed pitcher somewhere in the top 10 to 15 rounds of the 2014 Draft.

So how’d he end up being a 39th round pick in 2015 as just a hitter?

A back injury completely derailed his junior year, taking him completely off the draft radar and necessitating a return to Athens for another season. His numbers as a senior reverted to the levels he showed as a sophomore, even a tick better ⁠— solid at the plate, effective on the mound, albeit for a Bulldogs team that finished last in the SEC East.

It was nothing special, but enough to catch the attention of Angels scout Todd Hogan. With the 1,185th pick ⁠— a pick that will likely never exist again ⁠— the Angels selected Walsh and gave him a $3,000 signing bonus.

OK, so he rallied back from a poorly timed injury to fulfill his dream of reaching pro ball after all.

That’s a cool story, but that doesn’t really explain how he developed into the bonafide slugger he is today. That upgrade occurred thanks to a swing overhaul that began in the Minors and continued on after he reached the big leagues in 2019, helping to completely unlock legitimately impressive raw power that seemed to remain dormant in college.

Suddenly, Walsh was raking. He hit 29 homers across three Minor League levels in 2018 and then obliterated Triple-A in 2019 to the tune of .325/.423/.686 with 36 HR in 98 games. He even started pitching again, appearing in relief on occasion to further bolster his case for being a real part of the Angels' future. When you’re a 39th round pick, you’re never done proving you belong, and Walsh was doing all he could.

Unfortunately, the offensive impact he showcased in the Minors didn’t immediately translate to the Major League level, as Walsh struggled in his first stint with Anaheim in 2019, batting .203 in 29 at-bats. At that point, had he never figured out big-league pitching and regressed back into relative obscurity, his story ⁠— 39th rounder to big leaguer ⁠— would still have been a great one. Instead, Walsh was far from finished.

Once given more consistent at-bats in the second half of the 2020 season, Walsh took off. His 195 wRC+ in September was fifth-best in MLB, ahead of even his decently-good-at-baseball teammate Mike Trout. He hit nine HR in 22 games ⁠— two more than he did in 171 games in college ⁠— the last of which came off a 99.8 MPH fastball from Brusdar Graterol:

That’s the 28th-fastest pitch hit for a homer in the Statcast Era and the second-fastest this season behind only Jazz Chisholm Jr.’s epic blast off Jacob deGrom on April 10.

That September hot streak seemed to carry right into 2021 when Walsh walked off the Chicago White Sox in the first Sunday Night Baseball game of the year:

Look at that bat drop. Look at that strut. That’s not a 39th round pick. There’s no way!

Indeed, that’s exactly who he is, and Walsh is very much here to stay.

In another timeline, Walsh stayed healthy, stuck with pitching, was taken in the 12th round and developed into an average middle reliever. Instead, in this reality, Walsh will now look to seize the everyday opportunity at first base the Angels have tasked him with ⁠— and justify the team’s decision to abruptly cast a baseball legend aside in his favor.

Safe to say this timeline is a whole lot more interesting.

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He lives in Maryland but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn't get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter at @j_shusterman_.

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