Angels add youth to veterans, then stir
Cohesion of the inexperienced and the established sure to be key to season
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Six weeks ago, Los Angeles Angels players started showing up at the team's spring training facility in Tempe, Ariz., amid a climate of doubt. People couldn't stop talking about all the things the Angels didn't do over the winter.
They didn't sign Carl Crawford or any other name-brand free agents. They didn't get enough money back from the Toronto Blue Jays in the Vernon Wells deal. Kendrys Morales' fractured left ankle just didn't heal quickly enough.
But funny things happen in the spring. Tendrils of new life worm their way up through the detritus.
As they prepare for Thursday's season opener at Kansas City, the Angels have some unexpected reasons to hope that 2011 won't look much like 2010. There are signs -- and, remember, spring training performances can be mirages -- that the Angels' youngest players could produce a lot more action than the front office did.
For the first time since owner Arte Moreno started signing big checks six years ago, the Angels are relying heavily on young talent. Maybe, just maybe, it will power their return to the top of the AL West.
"We do have a lot of youth that's starting to come into our club and a lot of young veterans," manager Mike Scioscia said. "That gives us what we hope is an exciting combination."
The Angels sincerely hoped the crackling energy in Peter Bourjos' legs would eventually migrate up to his bat. The speedy center fielder finished the spring with a flurry of base hits. With Morales shelved indefinitely with pain in his ankle and foot, they hoped Mark Trumbo would force his way into the mix. He hit moon shots and line drives all over the Cactus League.
Unlike last season, if things start to get wobbly, say injuries mount, the Angels have reserves standing by. Their top pitching prospect, Tyler Chatwood, figures to be at Triple-A, just a phone call away. Switch-hitting catcher Hank Conger and middle infielder Jean Segura look as though they'll push for playing time. Top prospect Mike Trout might start doing things at Double-A that merit a promotion or two.
The worst thing you can do to a young player is expect too much, of course. In recent seasons, the Angels haven't gotten the production from their young hitters they expected. Brandon Wood went into last season as the everyday third baseman and struggled to make contact. Scioscia sent him to the bench and he's barely budged since.
But if you listen to the Angels veterans, the young guys who have been dominating the action this spring look more than ready for the challenge. "The thing about [Trumbo and Bourjos] is they're intelligent. They go about their business the right way," pitcher Dan Haren said. "Some guys come up with the wrong attitude. Those two guys especially, definitely have their heads on straight."
Neither player sounds overwhelmed, but then again neither player has dealt with six months of major league pressure, relentless travel and merciless pitching.
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Trumbo, 25, admits he'll have some nerves as he gets acclimated to stadiums with upper decks and pitchers who not only throw hard and with movement, but are working with scouting reports that pinpoint hitters' weaknesses.
"There are always going to be butterflies, but more than anything I just want to get the most out of it and not have any regrets," Trumbo said. "I'm going to give everything I have and we'll see what happens."
Bourjos, who turns 24 Thursday, admits he was overwhelmed for nearly two months after the Angels recalled him from Triple-A Salt Lake on Aug. 3 to fix glaring holes in their outfield. It didn't show much when Bourjos roamed the outfield, but it did in the batter's box. He hit .204 and struck out 40 times in 181 at-bats.
He hasn't looked like the same guy this spring. He has shown a lethal bunting touch, a skill that could add 30 or more points to his batting average all by itself. He has concentrated on hitting the ball up the middle when he swings. Jumpy in the box in 2010, he got pull-happy, which can make a hitter prone to strikeouts.
"I was trying to get that feeling last year and I could never get it and I think it's because I couldn't relax," Bourjos said. "I was getting too quick and too anxious and coming right out of it."
If things go well, the Angels will have a productive mix of veteran savvy and youthful energy, components that helped the Texas Rangers dominate the division last season. Bourjos, Trumbo, Conger and several of the pitchers have been playing together their whole careers, moving through the Angels' system in tandem. Camaraderie can, but doesn't necessarily, lead to success.
"It's practically like family," Bourjos said. "The last five years, during the summer, I've spent every minute with those guys."
If Trumbo and Bourjos flop, the Angels can move to other options. If the trio of young relievers struggles, the season could be lost. The Angels' bullpen wasn't very good last year (4.03 ERA) and nothing suggests closer Fernando Rodney suddenly will become the lockdown closer he never has been. The Angels don't have enticing relief options in the minors. Scioscia has built his reputation in part on having stifling relief to call upon most years.
Walden, 23, appeared in nine games this spring without allowing a run. Kohn, 24, gave up one run in 12 innings. Thompson, 26, had a 1.13 ERA. As soon as the Angels' plane touches down in Kansas City, none of those numbers will matter, but the ability they reflect will matter.
Kohn made his major league debut last July 26. Walden made his on Aug. 22. Neither guy ever looked like he belonged anywhere else. Their teammates noticed their confidence, rare for pitchers so young. Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger, two of the young veterans Scioscia talked about, were impressed with how little fear Walden and Kohn showed.
"When you're young, you have that whole aura of big league hitters. You think they're going to hit a homer every single time up," Bulger said. "They didn't have that mentality. I don't know if guys told them what to expect when they got here or what, but nobody had to say much about how to pitch.
"They were very professional."
If things go well at Angel Stadium this season, this could be remembered as the season of the young professional.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.