Wednesday, April 15, 2009

(Hank Conger is back behind the dish in 2009)

By David Saltzer - Columnist

Over the next few days, we’ll be taking a close look at each of our minor league affiliates to get to know the 5 big questions that each team needs to answer over the course of the season. Today we focus on our Double-A team, the Arkansas Travelers to see what key issues are affecting each team.

Question #1: How good is this team?
Last year was a bit ironic for the Travelers: they had the lowest winning percentage of any of our minor league affiliates and yet they were the only team to win their League’s Championship.

This year, the Travelers have a new look and a lot of top-talent. The team boasts are #1, #2, #3, #7, #8, #10, #30, and #44 prospects. It features a former first round pick (Trevor Bell, 1st round pick in 2005). The team has power—Trumbo led all Angels minor leaguers in HRs last year and was tied for 2nd overall in the minors with 286 total bases. It has clutch hitters—Conger drove in 13 during the Travelers playoff stretch last year. It features speed—Bourjos swiped 50 bases last year. It features pitching with O’Sullivan, Walden and Anton as starters and Herndon as a closer. Basically, this team has it all!

While several prognosticators bashed the Angels organization last year for a lack of prospects, that shouldn’t be the case this year. Maybe it’s easy to understand why so many statisticians overlooked our organization—most of our top talent gained a lot of frequent flyer miles between Salt Lake and Anaheim or was buried down in the lower minors. This year, though, the Travelers are loaded with talent and should be set to defend their crown. The talent is here, and this year it should shine brightly.

Question #2: Catch this, Conger?
We know that Conger can hit. He posted a 303/330/517 line last year and helped the Travelers in their playoff drive with 13 rbis. But, where Conger has stagnated has been in his time behind the dish. In 3 pro-seasons, Conger has only caught 91 games. Even worse, due to a slight tear in the labrum in his right shoulder (his throwing shoulder) followed by a bruise to his left thumb, Conger was limited to just 10 games behind the dish last year.

Scioscia likes a good bat at any position, but places a premium on defense at catcher. He believes that a catcher can contribute almost as much (if not more) behind the plate than he can standing at the plate. While Conger has a mighty bat, his defense could use some work. Initially there was a thought that the Angels would be a little bit more conservative with Conger and have him work on his defense at Single-A Rancho instead of at Double-A Arkansas. But, Conger worked a lot on his defense over the winter and really showed improvements during Spring Training. The Angels decided that all that work merited the promotion to Double-A Arkansas as a catcher meaning his defense was as much on par for the league as his bat.

Eddie Bane has taken some flak for his praise of Conger as a catcher. This year, in Arkansas, Conger should justify the high praise heaped on him and could begin a quick path to the majors as an offensively minded AND defensively minded catcher.

Question #3: Will Walden be the staff ace with his pure power?
How much is triple-digit heat worth? According to Scott Boras, nothing less than $50 million if you plan on drafting Strasburg this year. Luckily, the Angels already have their own triple-digit threat in Walden and they didn’t pay anywhere near that much. He regularly has hit 101 mph, even late in the games. When he’s throwing, the ball makes a different sound smacking the catcher’s mitt.

Walden got into some games in Spring Training this year and showed that he has the stuff to be a top of the rotation pitcher. He can blow hitters away with his heat and has the secondary pitches to keep them off balance (although he still needs to work on his changeup). However, he needs to replicate his delivery more so that he maintains control. During Spring Training this year, he struck out 5 in 6 innings, but also walked 3.

When we made our Top-50 list, we thought Walden would start the season at Single-A Rancho since he only made 9 starts there last season. Apparently the Angels were impressed enough with the work he did in the instructional league and in Spring Training to challenge him at the Double-A level this year. At age 21, he is the youngest pitcher on our staff (a few months younger than O’Sullivan) and the 2nd youngest player overall on the team (only a few months older than Conger). With the best heat in our system and the best slider to boot, Walden could be making his major league debut by the end of 2010.

Question #4: Or will O’Sullivan be the staff ace with his control?
If you aren’t impressed with the heat, maybe you’re into control. If that’s the case, then O’Sullivan is the pitcher for you. He doesn’t throw as hard as Walden, but he can still bring the heat in the low to occasional mid-90s.

Aside from his control, O’Sullivan has the makeup to be a solid pitcher. He knows how to battle and keep his team in the game. Although he did not win a league ERA title last year at Single-A Rancho, he still led the league in wins with 16. More impressively, he limited opponents to just 8 HRs in 158 innings—a tough feat for the high-octane California League.

At the end of Spring Training, O’Sullivan started our last game against the San Diego Padres. While they may not be the best hitting team in the majors, they did field their starters against O’Sullivan for all 3 innings that he pitched. He battled and limited them to just 1 run over 3 innings. He struck out 2 and walked no one in that stint. At age 21, that was an impressive start.

In our Top-50 prospect list, we said that 2009 would be a good determinant to see if O’Sullivan becomes an innings-eating starter or a reliever against tougher pitching. My bet is that O’Sullivan shows that he is a solid #3 or #4 pitcher this year who can generate a lot of ground outs and can keep his team in the game.

Question #5: Can Trumbo and Bourjos learn patience at the plate?
Plate discipline. Yes, we’ve heard the mantra, and these are 2 players who really could benefit from it. Both could be very special players if they could increase their walks and cut down on their strikeouts.

If speed is your game, then Bourjos is the player for you. He led the California League with 50 swipes last year in 60 attempts. He profiles to be a leadoff hitter, but, he has the power to bat deeper in a lineup. Last year he clubbed 48 extra base hits including 29 doubles, 10 triples and 9 HRs. As he matures, he should add to that power. He is a talented defender—one that could push Hunter to a corner spot defensively. If Bourjos can refine his strike zone—and there are glimmers that he has as he has 3 walks in his first 5 games—the path to the majors should be fairly short for him. If he can draw 50+ walks a year, he could be a perennial threat to steal 60-80 bases in the majors.

If power is your game, then Trumbo is the player for you. He led all of the Angels’ minor league players with 32 HRs and was 2nd overall in the minors with 286 total bases. While 2008 was a breakout year in terms of the power, it did not see a breakout improvement in terms of plate discipline. While he did improve his discipline in the Arizona Fall League, it came at the expense of his power. Two areas where Trumbo did make improvement last year were in his ability to hit the ball to all fields and on his defense. If Trumbo can draw 50+ walks a year and continue to use the entire field, he could be a perennial threat to hit 35+ bombs in the majors with a decent average.

For both players, their 2009 season could prove to be very pivotal. Both have clear shots to the majors (although Trumbo may have to move depending on Kendry Morales) and both are highly regarded throughout our system.

Sleepers to Keep an Eye On

Michael Anton (SP): Overshadowed by Walden and O’Sullivan, Anton is no slouch. He’s a solid lefty who needs to keep his control in order excel. Like O’Sullivan, he got hit pretty hard in the California League last year, but still limited opponents to just 12 HRs in 171.2 innings and won 13 games overall on the season. Double-A Arkansas should be a good test to see how Anton can fare against tougher hitters.

Trevor Bell (SP): Last year was not a good year for Bell, as he bounced around in levels and went from being a starter to a reliever. Bell is a former 1st round draft pick who needs to rediscover what made him stand out so much as a high school pitcher. At age 22 in Double-A, he’s right on track in his development. Hopefully he rediscovers his form.

Barrett Browning (RP): This left-handed reliever generates plenty of ground balls. He generated a 2.56 GO/AO ratio for the season last year in 65.2 innings. Browning also generated plenty of Ks, striking out 73. But, his control fluctuated, and at times he became quite hittable, creating a 1.47 WHIP. Not good. If he can refine it, he could become a good reliever down the road.

David Herndon (RP): Last year Herndon made a switch from being a starter to a reliever. In the process, he went from being suspect to being a prospect. He generated a 2.10 GO/AO ratio and racked up 17 saves in less than half a season. Double-A will be a good test for him, and he could see time in Triple-A Salt Lake by the end of the season.

Fernando Rodriguez (RP): In a repeat performance at Arkansas, Fernando is looking to build upon his work from last season. Fernando needs to keep the ball down more so as to avoid trouble. At age 23, he’s still on track to do that. If not, he will struggle in the high-octane parks at AAA.

Hainley Statia (SS): In a repeat performance at Double-A, Statia has slipped as a prospect because his offense is not on par with his defense. As a defender, Statia is a plus player. But his 242/288/368 line will not get him to the majors. If Statia could improve his offense, his defense could make him a useful MIFer or utility player.
Love to hear what you think!


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