- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Jordan Walden, the Los Angeles Angels ' 23-year-old closer, glances at a corner of the clubhouse filled with his young teammates and says, "I didn't expect this many young guys to be here, but you go with what you've got. We're ready, you know?"
Make no mistake, this wasn't the plan. The Angels, with a payroll bumping up against $140 million, suddenly are among the youngest teams in baseball, certainly among the teams that view themselves as bona fide contenders.
The Angels are the seventh-youngest team in baseball with an average age of 28.3 years. On the team's 25-man roster, seven players are 25 or younger. Eleven have fewer than two years' major league service time.
With the team's most veteran players, Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells, struggling badly, it has been two red-hot starting pitchers, Dan Haren and Jered Weaver, and the youngsters who have kept the team afloat. They're also infusing the Angels' clubhouse and the product on the field with an energy that was woefully lacking in 2010.
"These guys coming up, they're hungry. They want to show what they can do," Wells said.
You can call it an accident, but that doesn't quite give the players, scouts and minor league coaches enough credit.
Still, you wouldn't be far off. Angels management didn't view 2011 as a rebuilding year, or even consciously go about trying to get younger. It simply has worked out that a torrent of young players -- discrete waves of major league talent -- has flooded the Angels' depth chart. It began happening at the end of 2009, accelerated last year, when the Angels wisely let some youngsters get a taste of the big leagues, and gained momentum through these early weeks.
It hasn't just been Triple-A level talent either, though the Angels' best-hitting catcher, Hank Conger, their closer, Walden, their starting first baseman, Mark Trumbo, and their starting center fielder, Peter Bourjos, all came from that class. Now, they're ushering in guys who started last season at Class A, including a member of the rotation, Tyler Chatwood, 21, and a second baseman who could be in for extensive playing time, Alexi Amarista, 22.
All this from a minor league talent pool, which -- as recently as one year ago -- was viewed as among the most shallow in the major leagues.
"I don't pay much attention to those," Angels general manager Tony Reagins said. "That's why you develop, that's why you scout. We have a sense of what these guys can potentially do and you're starting to see it at this level. That's good for us."
If it keeps up, it will be a godsend in the long run. Building from below is by far the easiest path back to the World Series for the Angels, since none of these young players will earn much more than the minor league minimum for the next few years. Reagins will have the financial flexibility to pluck a high-impact free agent or two next winter and add them to a strong foundation.
Teams that have to rebuild their rosters from the free-agent market either have to spend ridiculously (Boston and New York), or they have to overpay for second-rate free agents (plenty of teams). Reagins and manager Mike Scioscia both insist that this youth movement has been a grassroots effort rather than the result of top-down planning.
"Getting younger is probably a longer-range project," Scioscia said. "You always want to get talent that will stay as long as it can and, obviously, young talent is going to be around longer than talent on the back end. But we want to be good. That's the overriding influence on our depth chart."
So far, they have been good -- three games over .500 and just 1½ games behind the Texas Rangers. With so many young players in key positions, though, there is reason to worry that growing pains are just around the corner.
"It's been a month," Reagins said. "They've done well thus far, but it's a long season and they have to continue to do well."
Already, Trumbo has fallen into a deep slump. The Angels hope that, if the young players hit a collective funk, Hunter, Wells and Abreu will have re-found their games by then. Until then, Scioscia continues to write out lineup cards with veterans in the middle and newcomers almost everywhere else. These young players seem to have the stomach for it.
After watching Amarista's debut-- and his two-run double in his first at-bat -- Hunter said, "He's not scared, and I love that."
That's the first step.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.
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