Mike Trout tops Angels' prospects
He'll turn 19 soon, but outfielder has L.A. excited. Bourjos and Conger high on list, too
RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. -- There is a cramped little manager's office in the home clubhouse tucked underneath the third-base stands at the Epicenter, home of the Angels' Cal League team.
On Tuesday, Quakes manager Keith Johnson, his four coaches and roving catching instructor Bill Lachemann, a 76-year-old man wearing catcher's gear, were all squeezed into it. On a blurry color TV mounted over Johnson's desk, the early innings of the Angels' game in Baltimore were playing. Nobody seemed to be paying too much attention.
Even as this Angels' season took another step toward irrelevance with Tuesday night's loss to the last-place Orioles, saplings of hope were growing out here in the Inland Empire. The shining beacon of that hope is center fielder Mike Trout, a stout, athletic kid who is days away from turning 19 and widely viewed as the organization's best young player.
Trout and his teammates on this Class A team are years away from helping the Angels, but this is where the team is hoping to build a sturdy foundation for future success. Most of the Angels' minor-league talent is at the lower levels -- here; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Tempe, Ariz., where the 2010 draftees are playing.
It's not a flashy bunch in Rancho Cucamonga, but there is talent here.
"We have a lot of solid ball players, guys that are fringe prospects, but they're going to go out and prepare professionally, give you good at-bats, compete on the mound and play solid defense," Johnson said. "We have a lot of those guys."
Then there's Trout, who turns 19 Saturday. He reported here after blowing through the Midwest League like a tornado and showing the rest of the country his skills in the All-Star Futures Game at Angel Stadium. After enduring an early slump, Trout has continued to impress people. A lot of his teammates are 21 and older. So are many of the pitchers he is facing. Trout can't accompany his teammates to the bars they visit.
"When they go out, I really can't go out," Trout said. "Other than that, everything's good."
Tuesday night, Trout came to the plate to the menacing tones of Young Jeezy's "Lose My Mind." In the third inning, he hit a sharp, one-hop grounder to the Lake Elsinore shortstop, who looked stunned when he threw to first and Trout was just half a step from reaching the bag. Johnson said everything about Trout's game is "explosive."
"When he hits the ball, it's loud," Johnson said. "That's good to see, a guy with his type of speed who can drive the ball. He's not just trying to hit the ball on the ground and beat out hits."
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There are myriad paths in professional baseball and some of them lead to the same place. Trout was a high-school phenom who was destined to be picked in the first round. The Angels just happened to be the team that took him. Quakes third baseman Luis Jimenez also played in the Futures Game -- for the world team -- but his road has been bumpier than Trout's.
Jimenez signed as a 17-year-old free agent in the Dominican Republic five years ago. In 2008, he was diving back to the first-base bag when he hurt his shoulder. He didn't know how badly he was injured until the following season, when doctors told him he needed surgery to repair a torn labrum. He missed the 2009 season.
Jimenez's family in the Dominican was able to watch him on ESPN in the Futures Game. He said that was an "awesome" reward for the long months of rehab.
"I'm trying to play in Angel Stadium. I did it in the Futures Game, but I want to do it every day over there, you know?" Jimenez said. "My goal is to stay healthy, because if I stay healthy, I can play."
The Angels are hoping guys such as Trout and Jimenez will be contributing in the major leagues in a few years. But having a system rich in prospects serves more than one purpose. The Angels were able to acquire pitcher Dan Haren and third baseman Alberto Callaspo, players who will be in Anaheim beyond this season, by trading six minor-league pitchers last month. Maybe the Angels' system -- ranked No. 22 of 30 by ESPN's Keith Law in January -- isn't so barren, after all.
"You can't swing any deals if you don't have players," Angels farm director Abe Flores said.
Here's a breakdown of the team's top 10 prospects, as ranked by ESPNLosAngeles.com:
1. Trout, CF
Before he got to Rancho Cucamonga, Trout had never seen so many fastballs that sink and so many pitchers with command of their breaking stuff. He fell into a mini-slump, which actually was good for Angels talent evaluators. They got to see how he handled failure.
Here's how he responded: Trout went 4-for-5 with two doubles Sunday.
The Angels knew Trout had great athleticism when they used their second pick on him in the 2009 draft, but they've been a little surprised by how well he has hit. He's built like a running back -- 217 pounds -- and he runs like one, with a heavy gait. The hottest debate among the Angels' minor-league staff: Who is faster, Trout or new Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos? Whoever wins the title is the fastest man in the organization.
2. Bourjos, CF
At first glance, he's a one-dimensional player, whose speed sets up everything in his game. Flores argues with that notion.
"This guy's a top-of-the-order bat who can beat you in a couple ways, with his legs and his defense," Flores said.
Bourjos, who was promoted to the major leagues Tuesday, instantly became one of the fastest players in the American League. He has good instincts in the outfield, so his defensive upside is virtually unlimited. Questions about how well his bat will play at the top level linger, though.
3. Hank Conger, C
First the knocks: His swing is weaker from the right side than the left and he has trouble throwing out runners at second base. Plus, he has had all sorts of trouble staying healthy. But the Angels could have a rare player on their hands: a switch-hitting catcher who can hit.
Conger was the MVP of the Futures Game. He's good enough that the Angels might have to move a catcher or two this offseason to accommodate him in the big leagues. To play regularly for Mike Scioscia, though, Conger is going to have to improve his defense.
"I would say he's on our major-league depth chart, but he's got to be able to master the nuances of the position to play for Mike," Flores said.
4. Garrett Richards, RHP
The Angels don't often take college pitchers in the first round, so they must have really liked this guy when they plucked him out of Oklahoma in 2009. According to Flores, he has four "plus" pitches: a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. He pitches in the low- to mid-90s but needs to work on his command. He recently was promoted to Rancho Cucamonga, but at 22, he could move quickly.
5. Jordan Walden, RHP
Unless he gets hurt again or fails to develop, he looks to be a lock as a major-league reliever one day. According to Flores, he has been clocked throwing 101 mph. That's not going to get him anywhere if he has no idea where it's going, of course.
"His stuff has been there, but he's also been erratic with his command," Flores said.
6. Trevor Reckling, LHP
This guy would have been a lot higher on this list four months ago, but he struggled mightily at Triple-A and the Angels demoted him to Double-A Arkansas to work on his delivery. Still, he's a left-hander who can throw in the low- to mid-90s with two additional pitches, so it's pretty clear he'll have a future. If he can become more efficient, he's young enough, at 21, to get quickly back on track.
7. Tyler Chatwood, RHP
A second-round pick in the 2008 draft, Chatwood, 20, has moved steadily up the ranks and has been solid at Double-A. He's only 6 feet tall, but Flores said his fastball ranges between 92 and 97 mph. He also gets a lot of ground balls and has a fairly crisp breaking ball.
8. Jean Segura, 2B
Flores compared his physique to that of ex-Dodgers slugger Raul Mondesi but said his speed is only a "tick" below that of Trout and Bourjos. He's batting .302 at low Class A and could blossom into a run producer or a top-of-the-order hitter. He broke his leg two years ago, which altered his stride but hasn't dampened his speed.
9. Jimenez, 3B The Angels love his defense and his offense is showing signs of catching up. He went 1-for-2 in the Futures Game.
10. Gabe Jacobo, 1B
He doesn't normally show up on prospects lists, but as Johnson said, "Every year, he just keeps putting up numbers."
He plays a slick first base and has mashed 18 home runs with 80 RBIs at Rancho. He's a hard worker, which might be his best attribute as he struggles to move up the ranks.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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