Shadow Hills High School alum Taylor Ward represents the Coachella Valley in the outfield.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Taylor Ward will arrive at spring training this year a new man. He will face neither the anxiety of winning a job nor the pressure of having to look good. Tempe, Arizona, will be a place to grow and flourish rather than hope and pray for survival.
The Angels outfielder, the pride of Shadow Hills High School in Indio, is a big-leaguer now, a player with not only established credentials (having joined the Los Angeles Angels in 2018), but also reasonable chances at stardom.
This season, he will become the Angels’ left fielder — and he already has a No. 4 ranking among major league baseball’s left fielders, according to a preseason assessment by the MLB Network. That means Ward already rates higher at this position than stars such as Michael Brantley of the Houston Astros who clocks in at No. 8.
It hasn’t always been this way for Ward, who lives in the Phoenix area now and recently welcomed the birth of his first child, a daughter named Cameryn. That makes him a new father with a short commute to a dream job.
“It’s just a great feeling,” the 29-year-old says, “going to spring training, knowing you have a spot.”
His road to the plush outfield grass at Angel Stadium, and the majors in general, began in 2009, when his family moved from Florida to the Coachella Valley. His mother’s job as an executive in the Wyndham Hotel chain triggered the move and a tour of the desert’s high schools. Ward was already a budding baseball prospect, not as an outfielder, but as a catcher. The Wards found the newly opened Shadow Hills, and its baseball coach, Teg Diffey, to their liking. The school was so new that in his first year, as a sophomore, there were only freshmen and sophomores in attendance. Each year after that, a class was added.
“We liked it a lot,” Ward recalls, “and going there was the reason I got recruited by Fresno State.”
Another reason might be the grand slam home run he hit in the prep playoffs.
“Yup, I remember that,” Ward says.
He was an all-conference catcher, and a readily identifiable pro prospect, who was drafted in the 31st round by the Tampa Bay Rays while still in high school. He chose to keep his commitment to Fresno State and build his catching credentials there. And that he did. After he hit .320 in his sophomore year, he followed that with a .304 batting average in his junior year and earned a spot on the All-Mountain West first team. In the 2015 draft that followed his junior year, Ward, then 21, was the 26th pick, taken by the Angels in the first round.
That made Ward the Coachella Valley’s highest-ever draftee in major league baseball.
The draft pick was both a strategy and a negotiation. The signing bonus for a No. 26, first-round pick, was normally $2.036 million. Ward signed for $1.67 million and says now that it was the product of a discussion that allowed him to be a first-round pick and allowed the Angels to save $366,000.
“I agreed to it,” Ward says. “I wanted to go to the Angels. I had talked to them a lot, and they were the team I wanted the most. Now, I couldn’t be more grateful or happy.”
After going through the usual minor league boot camps for a couple of seasons, Ward was called up to the majors on Aug. 14, 2018. In his first plate appearance, against the Padres at Petco Park in San Diego, he doubled and drove in a run. After that, for the next few years, he spent almost as much time on airplanes, shuttling between Anaheim and various minor league affiliates, while the Angels decided on the future of their left and right fielders, with superstar Mike Trout anchoring center. Ward even had a trial stint at third base, but was eventually placed in a sort of see-who-will-emerge competition as one of Trout’s sidekicks in the outfield.
Brandon Marsh held the left field spot for a while but was eventually traded to the Phillies. Jo Adell got lots of playing time in left and right field, but also lots of time on airplanes, as Ward had, going back and forth between Anaheim and the Angels Triple-A club in Salt Lake City.
But the beginning of the end of that Angel outfield search took place in late April of last season, when Ward went on a hitting binge that settled the search. Between April 25 and May 1, Ward batted .448, scored 10 runs, and drove in 11. In that span, he hit two homers in one 3-0 Angels’ victory; in another game, fell a single short of hitting for the cycle (a single, a double, a triple, and a homer in one game); and was named the American League Player of the Week.
A few weeks later, he banged into the wall making a catch, hurt his shoulder, hampered his bat speed, and didn’t get back to complete health until August. He still finished with the Angels top season batting average at .281 and became an obvious outfield incumbent. In the offseason, the Angels traded for veteran right fielder Hunter Renfroe, meaning Ward willingly will move to left field, creating an outfield that should excite Angels fans.
Ward still chuckles about how he went from a big-league catching prospect to the outfield.
“Billy Eppler [former Angels general manager] told me one day that I was too good an athlete to be a catcher,” says Ward, who, unlike most catchers, can actually run fast. “The outfielder stuff is still a work in progress. I’m still a lot better catcher than an outfielder, but I’m getting there.”
The Angels obviously have the expectation that he has pretty much arrived. In January, they signed Ward to a one-year, $2.75 million contract.
Now that’s spring training job security.