If Jose Rojas is coming into the season under the radar, that's OK with him.
The Angels prospect knows it's not easy for a 36th-round Draft pick to grab attention, and he's happy to surprise people, the way he surprised them a year ago.
"There's not a whole lot of expectation from a fan side," he said. "I see it as having something to work for and let them know I'm here. I belong."
Last year, Rojas was one of the best hitters in the Class A Advanced California League until he was promoted to Double-A in mid-July. At the time of the jump to the Southern League, he was riding a 23-game hitting streak and batting .319 with 32 extra-base knocks. He stayed hot at the beginning of his stint with Mobile and earned accolades at both levels for his defense at third base.
That may not be a typical first full season for a 1,086th overall pick, but Rojas, who grew up an Angels fan three miles from the ballpark, is atypical all around.
"He's an incredible young man in every way. I was extremely blessed and fortunate to have him in our program. He's a special kid," Vanguard University coach Rob Pegg said. "He's gifted, yeah, but he has tremendous heart and passion, and he cares. It's great to see him making strides. Lord wiling, we'll see him knocking on the 40-man [roster] and getting opportunities in the big leagues one day."
That's Rojas' plan. Considering how things have worked out so far, it's easy to imagine it happening. When he was a kid, his father, Jose, took him and his three siblings to several Angels games every season, and Rojas learned to play competitively by studying big leaguers and trying to emulate them in Little League games. He didn't even know about elite travel ball leagues in those days.
"Going to the stadium, I always wondered, 'Why are they a part of the Angels? What road did they take and how do I do that?'" he recalled. "[I remember] just wondering that because we're first generation here, from a Mexican family, so not having that typical resource that somebody else [in a family with parents] born and raised here might have. It was a little different for me."
| "It was definitely a dream come true to be a part of an organization that I grew up watching and always wondering how I could get there, and having that opportunity now to work my way [onto the team] ... that's the best part."
-- Jose Rojas
Dave Torres, his coach at Anaheim High School, made it clear to the young Rojas that he had the potential to play pro ball. Then a shortstop, he took the game seriously and earned a spot playing for Fullerton College. After hitting above .300 for two seasons, he transferred to Vanguard, where Pegg was excited to have him.
"When you see him every day, you really get to know him. But right away, he showed intensity," the coach said. "You could see it in his eyes, the way he played the game -- he's a hustler, a grinder. Some kids just have that look and you know it when you see it. Plus, he was a left-handed skilled bat, and at our level, he was a no-brainer."
Video: Inland Empire's Rojas extends hit streak to 20
The Los Angeles Times referred to Rojas as "a one-man wrecking crew" during his first year with the Lions, and he was named a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Gold Glove shortstop. The next season, he was the Golden State Athletic Conference's Player of the Year. After going homerless in two years with Fullerton, he busted out for 12 in each of his two seasons with Vanguard, batting .361 with 57 RBIs in 58 games in 2016.
"His bat -- and I don't take credit for this at all -- did get a lot better over the time he was with us, especially from the power side. I always knew he could hit, but when he first came to us, he was actually a spray hitter," Pegg said. "There was only one small adjustment I ever remember him making, and other than that it was just getting on the plate more, finding the pitches he had an opportunity to drive. And he's the kind of guy who makes adjustments on his own."
Athough no clubs contacted him about the 2015 Draft, a few scouts introduced themselves to Rojas during a scouting day at Vanguard that fall, the start of his senior season. In a way, that first contact with the world of Major League Baseball made the possibility of turning pro seem more real, which helped him put up monster numbers.
"I felt like that belief I had, it felt more physical now, like I was able to see it more than just believe it," Rojas said. "That made it a little easier on me, knowing there was some interest with these scouts and maybe they were going to pull for me."
Over the three days of the 2016 Draft, Rojas, his father, and his younger brother, Fernando (currently a pitcher for Fullerton College), hooked a laptop up to the family television to follow the results. A few scouts reached out, asking him whether he could play a particular position or inquiring about how much he'd been working out. None, however, mentioned when their organizations might draft him.
"It was very hectic, those three days of the Draft. I knew I wasn't going to be a top-10-rounder," he said. "Day 2, it was like, 'Who knows?' Maybe that was more reasonable. Then nothing Day 2 ... "
As the third day progressed, Rojas waited for the phone to ring. It didn't. Picks ticked by, one after another, and the phone did not ring. Then, with the final pick of the fourth-to-last round, his name came through the TV speakers.
"'The Angels pick ... ' and I hear my name and Vanguard University. I just go into shock. I froze," he said.
"I was expecting a phone call before because that's what I'd heard from my friends that had been drafted. It felt like a fake moment, and a few minutes [later], Ben Diggins, the area scout with the Angels, called and he was like, 'Did you hear your name? Congratulations.' I could hardly speak because I was so excited and emotional in the moment."
The notion of playing pro ball was thrilling enough, but suddenly being on track to wear the same uniform worn by David Eckstein, Adam Kennedy, Mo Vaughn -- players he'd tried to emulate -- made it even sweeter.
"It was definitely a dream come true to be a part of an organization that I grew up watching and always wondering how I could get there, and having that opportunity now to work my way [onto the team] ... that's the best part," he said. "It's a very weird thing. It's just a roll of the dice, maybe. Who knows? I grew up in a very faith-based home, so I've always had that faith in me, that higher power, if it's in His will, I'll be guided through it and helped along in my journey, along with -- obviously -- my efforts and my work ethic and doing my best."
Video: Mobile's Rojas hits first Double-A homer
After batting .308/.372/.471 for Rookie-level Ogden in 2016, he skipped a level to open last season. That was the assignment his father and mother, Maria, were rooting for -- they were well aware that the Angels' Class A Advanced affiliate is Inland Empire.
"I gave them a call the last day of Spring Training when I made the roster and they were so excited," Rojas said. "I was like, 'I'm coming home.'"
And it didn't take long for the 66ers' San Manuel Stadium to feel like home, even though Southern California traffic precluded him from living at his family home some 40 miles away.
"A lot of my family was able to come out to the games throughout those four months that I was in San Bernardino," he said. "[My parents] would come out, honestly, every home game. I would tell them to just wait until the weekend so they wouldn't have to put up with the traffic. They were like, 'No, we want to come out.'"
The left-handed hitter gave his family and others who traveled from Orange County plenty of reasons to keep coming back. Pegg was among those who made the trip a few times.
"That's a special feeling. The first game I saw him in San Bernardino, he hit a home run off the scoreboard. It was a shot," the coach said.
From June 18-July 14, Rojas couldn't be stopped, batting .385 with 24 RBIs and 23 runs scored in 23 games. In the middle of that stretch, he went to the All-Star Game in Visalia and, as the 66ers' only position player selected, he represented his team in the home run derby. He smashed 24 dingers over three two-minute rounds and a 30-second tiebreaker, outlasting power-hitting prospects like Ibandel Isabel (Dodgers), Josh Naylor (Padres), Sam Hilliard (Rockies) and Aramis Garcia (Giants) to finish second behind Marty Herum (D-backs).
"About a week before the derby, I was so excited," Rojas said. "I was like, 'Man, I need a new bat. I need a big bat, something that will launch baseballs.' My family drove up to Visalia. I mean, I was going up against these guys who ended up having 20-something home runs in the Cal League. ... It was awesome. My first time ever doing that and it felt like I was in the big leagues. I felt like a kid out there."
Offseason MiLB include
About three weeks later, after a Friday night game in Stockton, Inland Empire manager Chad Tracy called Rojas into his office and asked him how he'd like to take his hitting streak to the Southern League. It took pitchers like Kyle Hendricks, who was perfect in a July 17 rehab appearance for Tennessee, to end Rojas' run after two Double-A games.
Even after that 0-for-3 evening, he was a steady producer for the BayBears until the last couple weeks of the season, when he hit a slump. (From Aug. 18-Sept. 4, his Double-A average fell 59 points to .227.) He took it in stride, a lesson from which he could learn for 2018.
"I didn't really get down on myself. Through that two-week struggle, I was fighting to make the adjustment at the plate. Defensively, I did fine. It's just maybe getting a little out of my hitting zone and chasing a little bit too much," Rojas said. "That's just something I've taken into the offseason and worked on going into Spring Training."
Whatever Rojas accomplishes this season and after, the character that drives him on the field has made a permanent impression on those he's worked with along the way.
"It's weird to say, but he's almost like a mythological figure, like a throwback to the 1920s. ... He's like an old-fashioned guy you can't help but cheer for," Pegg said. "I just keep going back to how good a human being he is and how respectful he is. He comes back and practices [at the Vanguard facilities] and he wears Vanguard stuff. He doesn't flaunt a bunch of Anaheim Angels stuff. He's a genuine and high-character guy."