Commentary

Angels experimenting with youth

With the playoffs getting farther out of reach, L.A. has begun auditioning young talent

Updated: August 28, 2010, 2:58 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Angels slipped out of contention days, if not weeks ago. At this rate, they'll soon slip the minds of Southern California sports fans entirely.

Friday night's loss to the Baltimore Orioles -- who, despite the Angels' best intentions, are headed for a 100-loss season -- told the tale of this season. If that didn't tip you off, the pregame trade of closer Brian Fuentes to the Minnesota Twins should have been a sizeable clue.

This team's 2010 playoff trajectory is with a comfy couch or lounge chair, remote control in hand.

The Angels scored their only run on a balk Friday and lost 3-1, giving them four straight losses to the Orioles. The loss wasn't the crime. The lack of entertainment value was. Thankfully, the Angels were shooting off fireworks afterward, so most of the 41,307 fans got to see something capable of inspiring awe.

Peter Bourjos
AP Photo/Jae C. HongPerhaps the most notable nod toward youth, Torii Hunter made room for Peter Bourjos in the outfield.

Things might appear plain as dirt, but if you get out your magnifying glass -- like a school kid on a field trip -- you'll find some interesting things to examine. Without wanting you to know it, the Angels have embarked on a youth movement, inviting some of their most talented young players to join the major-league team for auditions. That always makes for fascinating theater.

The idea is to sift through enough of these kids that they get a sense of who can help them in 2011 and beyond. They're not going to admit they've pulled the plug on the 2010 effort, but who's even listening to most of their nonsense any more?

On Aug. 3, the Angels made their most radical nod to the future. They shifted nine-time Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter to right field to make way for 23-year-old speedster Peter Bourjos. Since then, Bourjos has started 19 of the team's 20 games.

Here's what the Angels have found out about him: He's every bit the athlete they thought he was, gazelle-like in the outfield. As a hitter, he's a project. Bourjos, though, has shown signs of making adjustments, a promising sign for a player so young. He looked lost for a couple of weeks, but was hitting .280 in the previous seven games entering Friday.

Bourjos' defense and base running are so dynamic, the Angels might accept a dead spot in the No. 9 hole for months at a time next season. It was harder to take when Brandon Wood was making all those outs as a third baseman, a position that suggests power and production. Bourjos already has given the Angels defense a different feel, the pitching staff a new sense of calm.

"He has the advantage of playing a premium defensive position and doing it at an extraordinary level," manager Mike Scioscia said. "That's his potential. If he's a guy who has to hit, has to do it offensively, obviously if he's struggling, you have less patience."

But don't count out Bourjos as an offensive contributor in the long term. He's a .287 lifetime minor-league hitter and he set a Pacific Coast League record for hits in a month right before the Angels plucked him from obscurity. Bourjos said he has always struggled for a time when he steps up a level, starting with rookie ball in 2006.

This seems a little different, he admits. The leap from Triple-A to the majors is easily the biggest step for hitters. Pitchers at this level can make rookies like Bourjos look bad, again and again.

"If they miss, it's only one time an at-bat," Bourjos said. "If you foul that pitch off, you're not getting it back."

There are other signs that the Angels can expect more from their minor-league reinforcements next year than they got from them in 2010. Francisco Rodriguez and Michael Kohn look like keepers for the Angels' bullpen.

Then there's Jordan Walden, a strapping 6-foot-5 Texan who arrived a week ago and has been clocked throwing 101 mph a few times. After a week in the big leagues, Walden was already being mentioned by Scioscia as a setup candidate after the team traded Brian Fuentes to Minnesota on Friday. Walden looked electric pitching the ninth inning Friday, striking out Ty Wigginton and Felix Pie.

Any baseball novice can see -- even hear -- this kid's promise. The Angels turned him into a full-time reliever earlier this year and his career took off. So did his fastball. According to Baseball Info Solutions, Walden already is the second-hardest throwing pitcher in the American League to Detroit's Joel Zumaya. Walden's fastball is averaging 98.9 mph.

"Going out there for one or two innings, it's a lot easier just letting it go instead of trying to save some for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings," Walden said. "I love being a reliever."

Playing in the big leagues in August and September is valuable experience for the Angels' newest players. It's also an important period of evaluation for Angels planners. And let's not forget, it's something interesting to look at for the fans. That counts for something.

Hunter simmers

It might look as though the Angels have long since resigned themselves to their fate, but not all of the players seem to have given up.

Hunter seems to want to will this team back into contention, but his efforts sometimes seem a bit unfocused. He was thrown out easily for the final out at third base -- a Little League mistake -- by Baltimore left fielder Felix Pie in the fourth inning trying to advance on Hideki Matsui's fly ball.

It's not the first time this season Hunter has made that blunder.

Scioscia calls it "frustration at trying to create offense."

Hunter sat and stared into his locker for at least 20 minutes after Friday's game.

"No plan, I just didn't think he would throw a strike to third and he did," Hunter said. "Just a gamble and I lost. Sometimes you try, but you don't have to."

Scene and heard

Brandon Wood had a little dilemma.

Both he and the Angels agreed he needed to get at-bats this winter. After all, he's only 25 and -- after a dismal start -- he has barely played for the past two months. His skills are in danger of atrophying.

But Wood has plans to be married on Dec. 4 with a honeymoon to follow in the Caribbean. So, rather than anger his bride-to-be by spending a month or more in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela or Mexico playing winter ball, he's going to get his extra at-bats in the Arizona Fall League.

It's a bit of an unusual twist, since the AFL is usually reserved for young minor league prospects. Wood has played there before, back in 2005.

Quote of the day

"I told you guys I was going to pitch."  Joel Pineiro, who threw 30 fastballs in a bullpen session Friday and looks on track to return from the disabled list sometime in early September.

Looking ahead

Saturday's game pits two of the most disappointing pitchers in baseball. The Angels send out Scott Kazmir (8-11, 6.33 ERA) while the Orioles counter with Kevin Millwood (2-14, 5.63).

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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