Shaikin: Zach Neto proving to be the king of the Angels' infield, and the team's future

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Zach Neto has four tattoos on his left arm. The one that really catches your eye is the collage toward the bottom of the arm, with a lion roaring atop its kingdom.

“This,” Neto said, pointing to the tattoo, “is just my journey.”

The Angels’ shortstop is a son of Miami, so the lion overlooks Miami Beach. The date of his major league debut is part of the tattoo, as is the Major League Baseball logo.

“For me finally making it,” he said.

The camel represents his college mascot. And the lion?

“I always see myself as a lion,” he said. “King of the jungle.”

For an Angels team that has been lost in the wilderness for a decade, Neto is anchoring himself as king of the infield.

Neto, 23, is in his second major league season, two years removed from his last game for the Fighting Camels of Campbell University. Of the 39 players selected in the first round of the 2022 draft, three have made the majors. One is back in the minors, one is on the injured list, and neither one has a positive WAR.

And then there is Neto, one among a pride of prospects trying to establish themselves as the Angels use this season to determine which young players can help them return to glory.

“No, no, no, no,” Angels manager Ron Washington said. “He has established himself.”

The Angels’ bummer summer could get worse, if they trade veterans — including pitcher Tyler Anderson, their only healthy and effective starter, and outfielder Taylor Ward, their No. 3 batter — for desperately needed prospects.

But that would be in the service of their future, in which they hope to build around Neto and catcher Logan O’Hoppe.

Neto this season has become the second shortstop in franchise history to hit 10 home runs before the All-Star break, joining Jim Fregosi, who did it in 1970. With his next stolen base, Neto would become the first Angels infielder with 10 homers and 10 stolen bases before the break since All-Star third baseman Troy Glaus, in 2000.

In their 64 seasons, only one Angels shortstop has hit more than 14 home runs in a season: Fregosi, who did it 56 years ago, 59 years ago, and 60 years ago.

Neto is batting .250 with a .732 OPS, in the same ballpark as Anthony Volpe of the New York Yankees, at .271 with six home runs and a .742 OPS. Volpe has more than four times as many All-Star votes primarily because (a) he plays for the Yankees and (b) he plays for the first-place Yankees.

But Volpe, a defending Gold Glove winner, also has a superior WAR because he gets on base more often and because he ranks, at least according to publicly available defensive metrics, as a premier defensive shortstop again this season. Those metrics do not love Neto.

“Day to day, I see him playing his butt off,” Washington said. “I don’t care about the metrics.”

Washington compared Neto to Dansby Swanson, a two-time All-Star he coached in Atlanta. In his second season, Swanson batted .232 with six home runs.

“Dansby wasn’t what Dansby is when he first got here,” Washington said. “It took some work.

“He reminds me of Dansby in the way he controls things out there.”

Mark Gubicza, the Angels’ broadcaster and 14-year major league pitcher, said Neto’s instincts and anticipation reminded him of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

Anderson compared Neto favorably to Trevor Story, his former teammate with the Colorado Rockies, who batted .239 and struck out 191 times in his second season. Story emerged as an All-Star, and Anderson believes Neto can too.

“I don’t care if he hits .195. You want him at shortstop every day,” Anderson said. “His defense is that good.”

ESPN last week considered the question of which shortstop a team would want over the next five years. The top two picks were the marquee youngsters: MVP contenders Bobby Witt Jr. of the Kansas City Royals and Gunnar Henderson of the Baltimore Orioles. Volpe ranked eighth.

Of the 15 shortstops mentioned — three of which currently play in the minor leagues — Neto was not one of them.

The way Neto would tell it, that would be just the latest in the pile of chips atop his shoulder. You might not know it from watching him play, though.

“I like to have a lot of fun out there,” he said. “You could say it’s confidence. You could say it’s cockiness. Whatever you want to say. It’s just the way I carry myself every day. I just go out there and try to have fun.”

That is how they do it in the 305 area code.

“Being born and raised in Miami, it’s kind of a reputation down there,” Neto said.

The perennial high school powers courted him, he said, but only after he emerged as a prep star. He declined to transfer.

The big-time college programs wooed him, he said, but only after he emerged as a star at Campbell. He declined to transfer.

The big-time agents pursued him, he said, but only when it became evident he would be a million-dollar draft pick. He turned them down and stayed with the low-profile hometown agent who had helped place him in college summer leagues.

And, when he signed with the Angels, he reminded his parents he had promised to get his college degree and pledged he would get it done one day, no matter how long baseball might keep him away from the classroom.

“It’s more of a loyalty thing for me,” Neto said.

That makes him appreciate Mike Trout all the more. The best player in franchise history twice passed up free agency to stay in Anaheim, where the home team last won a postseason game 15 years ago, the same year Trout was drafted.

“Growing up, I have always looked up to Mike,” Neto said. “Being able to share the same locker room and field and hear his thoughts, it’s a dream come true.

“He could have had the opportunity to go to any other team, and he stuck with his loyalty and his word in trying to build something here. That’s just what I’m all about. I really appreciate that from him. I am grateful to be able to join him for this ride to change something here.”

So, when the Angels finally return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, you will be the shortstop?

“That’s right,” Neto said. “That’s right.”

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