Commentary

Angels need a youth movement

With season slipping away, it's time to bring back Conger, Trout for the experience

Updated: August 17, 2011, 2:19 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM -- It's hard to believe the Los Angeles Angels will continue to watch baseball's worst-hitting offense since the All-Star break drag this team out of a pennant race. At some point, don't they reach for a knife and cut the cord?

How much longer can they field a National League lineup playing in the American League? It's as though their pitchers have to hit while other teams get the advantage of a designated hitter. Not literally, of course, but Angels catchers have hit almost as poorly as a few pitching staffs.

How much longer can they watch Vernon Wells lunge after the first pitch and hit weak pop-ups at-bat after at-bat and still keep playing him seven days a week, that .203 batting average just not budging?

[+] EnlargeHank Conger
John Cordes/Icon SMIHank Conger had some defensive deficiencies, but the Angels could use his offense behind the plate.

Is it me or is this a good time to try something daring, with the Texas Rangers showing every sign of making the AL West race a coronation in September, especially after Tuesday night's 7-3 victory over the Angels at Angel Stadium.

The beauty of the solution I propose is that, even if it fails, it works out well in the long run.

It's time to go even younger, to make your roster look like that of a team with a $40 million payroll that's barely even trying. It might work. And if not, it'll make next year more interesting and probably more competitive.

It's time to bring up the most dynamic solutions at hand, catcher Hank Conger and outfielder Mike Trout, scramble to get them as many at-bats as possible in the next six weeks, and see where things stand on Sept. 28. With the current crop of hitting talent batting .220 since the break, doesn't that suggest change might be in order?

What else can they do to stir the lethargy out of this group? Manager Mike Scioscia can try as many lineup combinations as he wants, but it's like moving deck chairs on the Titanic. This offense isn't going anywhere but down. After 123 games, you kind of are what you are.

If you're still fixated on the Angels getting outside help, forget it. That ship sailed past general manager Tony Reagins three weeks ago, when the non-waiver trade deadline came and went. Sure, he could probably trade for a guy who will clear waivers this month, but he'd be picking from a scrap heap of the overpaid and the underperforming.

And how'd that work out the last time Reagins tried it? If you can't remember, give Scott Kazmir a call down in Houston. He's got plenty of free time.

Scioscia got a little testy when I phrased the question about Conger, "How could you not try his bat after what you've gotten from your other catchers?"

"How could we not? We could catch Trout. How would that play defensively?" he asked.

That's a question for another column, Mike. Say, next week if things keep going this way. For now, let's confine our argument to Conger, who doesn't mind all that sweaty gear.

Going into Tuesday, Angels catchers were hitting .199 with a .265 on-base percentage and seven home runs (five of which were hit by Conger). Even Angels pitchers would giggle at those numbers. They batted .235 in interleague play. Two National League pitching staffs, those of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Milwaukee Brewers, would give Angels catchers competition in the batter's box. They're batting .189.

Jeff Mathis came up in the third inning Tuesday, the Angels desperately trying to claw back from a 5-0 hole. Runners were at second and third with nobody out. Derek Holland threw him six pitches, five of which were fastballs, and struck him out. Mathis was way behind a 96-mph fastball, to the surprise of no one. After his next strikeout, three innings later, the fans booed. His batting average sat naked up there in the lights: .178.

The Angels typically have to pinch-hit for him if it's the sixth inning or later and the game hangs in the balance. Again, it's exactly like having a pitcher in your lineup.

What has Conger done since they sent him back to Triple-A on July 19? He has done what he has always done: hit. He's batting .309 with five home runs and 26 RBIs in 26 games.

Scioscia has been getting reports periodically. He said there are signs of progress in Conger's defense, which was far from pristine when the Angels demoted him. Conger couldn't throw out a runner to save his life, his throws often bouncing on the shortstop side of the bag, giving the fielder no shot to get a tag down.

"There were some things getting away from Hank that were definitely influencing some pitchers in a negative way," Scioscia said. "Some things were going in the wrong direction. His upside is too good for him not to work on these things. He's caught barely 200 games in his career. He needs that experience, that repetition."

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesMike Trout is hitting well again at Double-A and it just might make sense to let him get more experience now with the big club.

Tough as it is to do, Conger might need to do his learning at the major league level, because the Angels can't keep trotting out catchers with bush-league bats. I know for a fact that some veterans in the Angels' clubhouse think Conger should be the everyday catcher on this team. At the very least, he is a left-handed hitter in a mostly right-handed lineup.

And Trout? In the past 10 games at Double-A, he's hitting .378 with five doubles, a home run and three stolen bases. Squeezing him into the picture is more complicated. The Angels owe Wells $72 million for the three years beyond this season. They're unlikely to just sit him down in his first taste of a pennant race, alienating him in the process.

But they could soften the blow by spreading Trout's at-bats around. He could play left field one or two games a week, fill in for Peter Bourjos or Torii Hunter here and there and be the designated hitter one or two games a week. They don't have to play Trout every day, but they could play him four days a week, which probably wouldn't stunt the 20-year-old's development too badly.

When he, Bourjos and Hunter played together, the Angels would have the most impermeable outfield the game has seen in generations. He would instantly inject speed and plate discipline into an Angels offense that could use both.

Not that either player is as good as he one day could be. Conger was hitting .214 when he got sent down, though sporadic playing time played a part in that. Trout was hitting .163 when he had to get on a plane headed to Little Rock, Ark., but the sample size was so small -- just 14 games -- and he did some dynamic things in a brief audition, including homer.

It's time to call in a full-scale youth movement, not for the future, but for the present and the future. The Angels don't have the luxury of leaving the good stuff on the shelf to age gracefully. Not, that is, if they plan on making the final few weeks mean something here in Anaheim.

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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