On a mission to win with Shohei Ohtani, the Angels are going to extreme lengths to inject new talent

NEW YORK — The Los Angeles Angels always have eyes on them. Eyes behind cameras, eyes behind phones held aloft — anyone emerging from the Angels clubhouse for batting practice steps into the intense gaze. Most of the players glide by, momentarily recognized but left alone, because they are not the targets. They are not Shohei Ohtani or Mike Trout.

The other 24 Angels don’t set off a flurry of clicks and flashes — except for sometimes Hunter Renfroe, Trout’s serendipitous stunt double — but they will ultimately determine whether Ohtani and Trout can seize the sport’s biggest spotlight, on the same team this time, by reaching October. As just about everyone knows, this season is the franchise’s last guaranteed shot to make a postseason run with both, with the Angels having squandered the game’s defining superstar duo so thoroughly that they routinely evoke a meme intended as exaggerated historical fiction.

To break the pattern — and perhaps hold out any hope of retaining Ohtani in free agency — the Angels need something to be different from previous years. They need something new.

And they seem acutely aware of it.

This past weekend, the Angels summoned their most recent first-round draft pick to take over as the starting shortstop. Zach Neto, a 22-year-old chosen out of Campbell University with the No. 13 pick in July 2022, played only 44 minor-league games between college and the majors. He’s the fastest position player to reach the big leagues since Conor Gillaspie in 2008 (24 games), but even that comes with the caveat that Gillaspie’s call-up was a stipulation in his agreement to sign with the San Francisco Giants. The last hitter to leap this quickly without contractual encouragement was the Milwaukee Brewers’ Rickie Weeks in 2003, according to’s Jim Callis.

Even Neto, praised as a polished prospect throughout the lead-up to the draft, was surprised the call came this fast. He was promoted directly from Double-A to the Angels, with struggling veteran infielder David Fletcher sent to Triple-A to make room.

“I was shocked a little bit,” Neto told Yahoo Sports. “I was like, 'Is this actually real?’ Finally, when the game finished and I got to sit down in our manager's office, you know, the words couldn't describe it. I sat there, and I couldn't stop smiling.”

Armed with excellent contact skills and an unconventional coiling leg kick, Neto is now trying to adjust to the big leagues on the fly. After managing just one hit in his first four games, he laced two doubles in a strong performance Wednesday at Yankee Stadium.

The Angels will need more of that. Under team owner Arte Moreno, the franchise has become top-heavy, willing to invest in glitzy stars but apparently behind the curve in the departments that keep baseball’s best teams running smoothly — player development, scouting, research. But over the past year, with Moreno's future ownership in question and Ohtani’s team control running out after 2023, GM Perry Minasian has worked to upgrade the supporting cast.

That meant plenty of competent big-league regulars, such as outfielder Hunter Renfroe, infielder Gio Urshela and pitcher Tyler Anderson. It also meant hunting for young players who might be the present and the future, who might convince a certain two-way superstar (among other observers) that the team is set up to make regular postseason runs.

Minasian, who previously helped build the Atlanta Braves’ enviable young core, took a swing last summer when he dealt outfielder Brandon Marsh to the Philadelphia Phillies for catching prospect Logan O’Hoppe. The 23-year-old won a spot on the Angels out of spring training this year and has looked strong early on, slugging four homers and collecting 13 RBIs before going down with a torn labrum.

Neto is the next potential mainstay. From the moment he was drafted, the Angels told him to keep doing what he had been doing in college.

“It was sticking to my approach, being a disciplined hitter, being able to wait for pitches I know I could do damage to,” he said. “That was their definition of that, and just being as patient as I was coming out of college.”

That’s not as simple as it sounds. Even the best hitters from the draft often spend seasons — plural — in the minors for a reason. The quality of pitching rises exponentially in the professional ranks. O’Hoppe said even he couldn’t relate to Neto’s rapid ascent.

“Guys are able to do things a bit easier than at the lower levels,” O’Hoppe said. “If I took a good pitch to hit in the minor leagues, then there’s a good chance I get one again. Up here, that's not the case — can't miss the pitch I want to hit.”

The Angels have missed opportunities annually. They haven’t reached the playoffs since 2014 despite employing Trout, the best player of his generation, the entire time and the otherworldly Ohtani since 2018. The stars’ storybook showdown in the final of the World Baseball Classic only amplified the craving to get them on the October stage.

The narrative stakes of the Angels’ 2023 season — keeping Ohtani beyond the trade deadline and maybe eventually convincing him to stay in free agency — go unspoken in the Angels clubhouse, but the younger players’ reverence for him and for Trout is clear. As is the mission and the crucial role the team's less famous contributors have to play.

“Everybody in this room has that common goal,” Neto said, “no matter how ugly or beautiful their name is.”