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Sunday, February 13, 2011
Updated: February 16, 5:35 PM ET
Aging Angels need youth to step up

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM -- It's a Tuesday at about 10:30 a.m. and two of the Los Angeles Angels' best young players are in a converted electrical engineering plant on bended knees, their faces about a foot from a black cement wall.

Conger
Angels prospect Hank Conger is a switch-hitting catcher and .297 hitter in the minors.

They're grasping 10-pound yellow rubber balls and heaving them over their heads into the wall.

Thwack!

It looks like what you'd expect from a bored 4-year-old at preschool.

In fact, it's part of a cutting-edge training routine, based on strengthening the core muscles and hips, that Hank Conger and Mark Trumbo hope will propel them ahead of some older players and into the Angels' plans when spring training opens Monday.

Trumbo has been working with his trainer, a slim, affable Canadian named Dave Constant, since he was 15. Trumbo turned Conger on to Comstock this winter.

The two young Angels have been training together four days a week at this facility in Northeast Orange County. It's run by three former major leaguers -- Brian Hunter, Darrell Sherman and Marcus Jones. It's got everything a pro athlete could ask for: a 30-yard turf football field, 14 batting cages, a weight room and enough pulleys, straps and medicine balls to train a battalion of young ballplayers.

Adam Kennedy of the Seattle Mariners works out here. So does Brandon Barnes, who led the Houston Astros' minor league system with 28 home runs last year.

Conger and Trumbo aren't taking any chances with their futures.

"You see guys who come in who aren't in good shape and they just kind of take it easy. Next thing you know, they don't have a job," Conger said. "It's such a cutthroat business that you've got to be on top of your game every day."

It's been a rigorous winter for Conger. After his workouts with Comstock, he takes a lunch break, then goes to Huntington Beach High School to take batting practice. In the evenings, he visits his local 24 Hour Fitness to ride the elliptical machine and stretch.

Conger looks hungry and that's not just because Comstock overhauled his diet. Instead of indulging in his mom's Korean cooking -- the name on Conger's birth certificate is Hyun Choi -- he's eating more fish and white-meat chicken. Conger trimmed down from his usual playing weight of 235 pounds to 220 this winter.

He's also tempted by the opportunity sitting in front of him. The Angels traded slugger Mike Napoli to the Toronto Blue Jays (who promptly flipped him to the Texas Rangers), in part because they think Conger is ready to push his way into their plans. The only player standing in Conger's way now is Jeff Mathis, a .199 lifetime hitter.

Conger, who just turned 23, is a switch-hitting catcher, a rare commodity. He's a lifetime .297 hitter in the minor leagues, with burgeoning power. Critics said he would never stick behind the plate because of his defensive deficiencies, but he worked hard at proving them wrong. His goal was to stay focused on every pitch last year and he didn't allow a single passed ball.

He knows this is the spring, his fourth with the big league club, that could actually earn him a job. It could, but it's far from guaranteed. Manager Mike Scioscia has proved willing to live with Mathis' lack of offense in the past. Bobby Wilson looks like a capable backup.

"I can't just expect something to be handed to me," Conger said. "If I don't perform, I'm not going to play."

The Angels might need Conger and Trumbo more than those guys need them. This is an organization coming off a losing season and an offseason that was widely panned. Their players seem to get more expensive even as they get older, in part because the farm system has failed to produce quality young players.

The Angels will spend roughly $50 million on outfielders this season, and that's if you still consider 37-year-old Bobby Abreu an outfielder, not a full-time designated hitter. The inflation and aging aren't because they whiffed on signing Carl Crawford, it's because their farm system hasn't produced an impact outfielder since Darin Erstad in 1997.

Trumbo
Mark Trumbo, a 6-foot-4 first baseman, had 36 home runs and drove in 122 runs at Triple-A Salt Lake last year.

As well as this team has done with pitchers, churning out Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Francisco Rodriguez and Kevin Jepsen in recent seasons, it has struggled to produce hitters. As many of the Angels' can't-miss prospects have missed (Brandon Wood, Dallas McPherson, Casey Kotchman) as hit. Even the guys who have made it (Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick and Mathis) have undershot many people's expectations. Kendry Morales is the best player the Angels have produced in a generation, but he's coming off a serious injury.

This organization desperately needs an infusion of young talent. Conger and Trumbo are on the front lines, with reinforcements like 19-year-old outfielder Mike Trout, now widely viewed as baseball's best prospect, behind them.

It's not just outsiders who see it. The Angels have grown sensitive about their farm system, which not long ago was regarded as one of the best. They overhauled their scouting department early this winter, firing director Eddie Bane and others, in part because they have been disappointed with the yields from their drafts.

Trumbo and Conger could help redeem Bane, but more importantly, give Angels fans something to be excited about. Both players grew up within a 20-minute drive of Angel Stadium.

Trumbo, a 6-foot-4 first baseman, mashed 36 home runs and drove in 122 runs at Triple-A Salt Lake last year, then hit .336 with five home runs in Venezuelan winter ball. He has steadily improved his walk totals, but needs to cut down on the 126 strikeouts from last year. He might have an everyday opportunity if not for Morales.

Trumbo originally went to Venezuela so he could play the outfield, making him more versatile to the Angels, but the team, Navegantes del Magallanes, wouldn't let him play there. It had Richard Hidalgo and a couple of other native veterans to accommodate.

Trumbo, 25, sounds willing to bide his time in Triple-A until his moment arrives.

"I know the reality of what's going, but I try to be as optimistic as I can," Trumbo said. "I know there are some good players in front of me, but if I worry about it it's not going to do me any good. My job's to force their hand a little bit."

It might take these guys forcing the Angels' hand to make this team worth watching again.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.