Hank Conger’s high school video, “Hank for President.”
Back in his high school senior year, before he was drafted by the Angels in June 2006, Hank Conger made a government program class gag video that wound up on YouTube (see above). Once discovered, it rippled through Angels fan boards. In May 2007, I recorded an audio interview with Hank in which he explained the video’s origins.
Now Hank has a sequel of sorts on YouTube, as discovered by the Halos Heaven web site:
Hank’s new video, “Domingo Ayala: Catching with Hank Conger.”
The video was produced for the Domingo Baseball Academy, which appears to be a gag. (Click “About” on the menu bar.) It also has Mark Trumbo in a video. Conger and Trumbo, both from Orange County, have been pals since both joined the Angels’ organization.
May 10, 2002 … Mike Napoli (center) poses with Tommy Murphy (left) and Justin Turner (right) when the three were playing for Cedar Rapids.
There was little reason to think Mike Napoli would have a major league career when the Angels selected him in the June 2000 draft. In its 2000 draft preview, Baseball America listed Napoli as the #22 prospect in Florida. Described as a catcher-first baseman, Napoli’s BA review stated:
Napoli is a dominant offensive player who can hit with power to all fields. He led his county in almost every department this spring, ranging from home runs to stolen bases. Scouts aren’t sold on his ability behind the plate and see him as a corner infielder. He’ll go as far as his bat will take him.
BA predicted that Napoli would be selected in the second to fifth rounds. He was chosen in the 17th.
Napoli was sent to Rookie-A Butte in the Pioneer League (the same league as today’s Angels affiliate, the Orem Owlz). He appeared in only ten games — three as a catcher, six as a first baseman, one as a pinch-hitter — before he was disabled for the season due to a lower back strain.
He spent the next three seasons primarily as a second-string catcher, and in 2003 was the backup to Jeff Mathis at Rancho Cucamonga when he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
At that point, it seemed like Napoli was doomed to spend his remaining professional baseball days as a journeyman minor leaguer. Other than the occasional show of raw power, nothing was extraordinary about the skills he’d shown.
While he rehabbed during the off-season, Napoli dropped 20 pounds and set his mind to stepping up his game. Returning to Rancho Cucamonga for 2004, he quickly became one of the top hitters in the California League, and was named to the mid-season All-Star Game.
Mike Napoli signing autographs at the 2004 California League All-Star Game.
I interviewed Mike on June 5, 2004 to ask what he’d done to turn around his career. Click here to listen to the nine-minute interview. (Windows Media Player required.) He said his off-season workout involved five-days-a-week sessions at a Phoenix sports clinic, but he’d also learned how to keep his mechanics consistent.
Napoli finished 2004 with an AVG/OBP/SLG of .282/.393/.539. The next spring, he debuted in the Baseball America Top 30 Angels Prospects list at #29. BA Alan Matthews wrote, “Napoli has a polished, professional hitting approach and obvious power … The biggest question surrounding Napoli is whether he’ll be able to catch at higher levels.”
Mike moved up to Double-A Arkansas for 2005, posting an AVG/OBP/SLG of .237/.372/.508. As you might expect with such an unusual line, Napoli didn’t hit often, but when he did it was for power. He also took a lot of walks — 88 bases on balls, which led the Texas League. Napoli also lead the league in homers (31), RBI (99) and strikeouts (140).
In spring 2006, BA ranked Napoli as the Angels’ #11 prospect. Alan Matthews wrote, “Napoli’s lone plus tool is tremendous raw power … He’s not much of an athlete or runner, but he has improved behind the plate. His arm strength is average and he has smoothed out his footwork and exchange, allowing him to lead the Texas League by catching 47 percent of basestealers last year.”
Every year since 2001, I’ve written in November an annual FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects Report. As impressed as I was by how Mike had turned around his career, I just couldn’t find myself believing in it enough to rank him as a Top 10 prospect. I worried about his surgically repaired throwing shoulder, about the relatively low batting average and all those strikeouts. I figured major league pitching would eat him alive.
Mike turned out to be “the one that got away” in my prospect lists. He made his major league debut in 2006, after just 21 games with Triple-A Salt Lake. The 2008 season was arguably his best, posting a line of .273/.374/.586 with 20 homers in 78 games. But his shoulder problems returned; he was placed on the disabled list for a month in July with “irritation” in his right shoulder, and returned to Rancho for five rehab games in early August. After the season, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder.
Mike Napoli with the parent club in spring training 2008.
Although Jeff Mathis was always considered the organization’s top catching prospect and Napoli projected as a backup, Mike and Jeff eventually settled into a routine where they somewhat evenly split the Anaheim catching duties. Mathis never hit as expected, but justified his starting role with “plus” defense. That changed in 2010, as Jeff threw out only 20% of baserunners. Mike wasn’t much better, nailing 27% of runners. After Kendry Morales broke his ankle on May 29, Napoli played first base in 70 games, while Mathis assumed most of the catching duties. Bobby Wilson was called up to provide catching depth, suggesting that the Angels might be concerned Napoli couldn’t catch every day any more.
Hank Conger reported to Anaheim once the Triple-A season ended and impressed in limited duty, so going into the winter it seemed likely the Angels might try to move Mathis or Napoli. Mike seemed the more attractive option because of his power bat, so when the Angels traded Napoli and Juan Rivera on January 21 to Toronto for Vernon Wells, it cleared the logjam behind home plate. The Angels will open 2011 with Mathis the starting catcher, Wilson the backup, and Conger in the wings playing every day at Salt Lake.
The Blue Jays have their own catching logjam as Napoli joins veteran Jose Molina and prospect J.P. Arencibia. It would seem that Napoli provides some depth and insurance should Arencibia flop, otherwise he’ll spend most of his time at first base and as a designated hitter.
I’ll always remember Mike Napoli as the non-prospect who willed himself into a major league regular. When critics and cranks dismiss a minor leaguer as “not a prospect,” I’ll point to Mike Napoli as an example of what’s possible if you work hard enough.
Mike Trout will face high expectations in 2011.
After a somewhat somnambulant winter, the Angels enter 2011 with more questions than answers.
The bullpen was strengthened by the signing of free agent lefty relievers Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi, but didn’t flush hundreds of millions of dollars into a “name” like Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre.
In 2009, the Angels led the American League in batting average (.285), were fourth in total bases (2,482), second in runs scored (883) and third in stolen bases (148).
In 2010, the Angels were 12th in average (.248), 11th in total bases (2,142), ninth in runs scored (681), and seventh in stolen bases (104).
What went wrong?
Many fingers are needed to point the blame, but in summary it boils down to several players had disappointing years. Their failure to produce anticipated offense was one major factor in the Angels’ decline from 97-65 in 2009 to 80-82 in 2010.
Brandon Wood, Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick and Jeff Mathis failed to produce as projected. Kendry Morales broke his left ankle on May 29 when he leapt onto home plate to celebrate a home run. Juan Rivera had a down year.
If they all rebound in 2011, no one will care about Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre. But that’s a big “if.”
On the mound, Jered Weaver delivered a Cy Young Award-caliber season, and Ervin Santana pitched to expectations, but after that the pitching staff was somewhat disappointing. 2009 free-agent signee Joel Piniero missed about ten starts due to injury. Joe Saunders had a 4.62 ERA in 20 starts, then was shipped to Arizona in the Dan Haren deal. Haren had a 2.87 ERA in 14 starts. Scott Kazmir, now the lone lefty in the rotation, had a nightmare year with a 5.94 ERA.
Loek Van Mil was acquired from the Twins in the trade for Brian Fuentes. Van Mil is listed as 7’1″ tall.
The bullpen was another disappointment. Brian Fuentes had a 3.52 ERA in 39 relief appearances before he was sent to Minnesota in a September 1 trade for minor league pitcher Loek Van Mil. Fernando Rodney appeared in 72 games but had a 4.24 ERA. Scot Shields was 5.28 in 43 appearances, unable to recover effectively from a 2009 injury. The rest of the bullpen was a mix of young relievers — Kevin Jepsen, Jordan Walden, Michael Kohn, Trevor Bell, Bobby Cassevah and Rich Thompson — who offered future promise.
Nothing is certain in life, nor in the baseball universe. Splashy free-agent signees don’t guarantee anything.
They also siphon off a lot of money that could be invested into player development.
Years ago, Baseball America did a study where they concluded it cost about a million dollars to develop a major leaguer. I’m sure that number is much higher today, but it illustrates the impact on the budget when signing a player for a mega-buck contract. Using as an example Beltre’s six-year $96 million deal with the Texas Rangers, that’s $16 million a year that could have been invested in future talent.
The flip side of that argument is that an established major leaguer is more of a “sure thing” than a prospect. The failure in the last decade of the Angels’ minor league system to produce a hitter that lived up to expectations underscores that reality.
So can the Angels rely someone in the mix of Wood, Aybar, Kendrick and Mathis to step it up?
If not, the focus will shift to the next generation of prospects. Peter Bourjos arrived in early August and showed off his plus-plus defense, but only hit .204 in 181 at-bats. Hank Conger and Mark Trumbo had token appearances, but will probably return to Salt Lake.
After them, everyone awaits the arrival of the savior, Mike Trout.
But fans need to temper their enthusiasm. Let’s not forget he’s only 19 and has only a half-year of experience at advanced Class-A. For every prospect, there comes a time where he experiences failure for the first time. Can he adjust? That’s the true test, because for every professional baseball player his career is a series of adjustments as opposing pitchers seek out flaws and weaknesses. So let’s give the kid some breathing room, okay?
I look forward to a full healthy season for Randal Grichuk. He injured both hands in 2010, but during his last month of play with Cedar Rapids after his return he hit .366/.385/.645. As with many Angels minor league batters, Randal didn’t take many walks, but in that month he showed an improved knowledge of the strike zone, which is a good first step.
Charitably listed as 5’8″, Alexi Amarista hit .400 in 70 plate appearances during his late-season audition with Triple-A Salt Lake.
Two middle infielders are on the prospect radar. Jean Segura may switch to shortstop or remain at second base. He reminds me of a cross between a young Alberto Callaspo and a young Erick Aybar, but neither of those has produced the stellar numbers hoped for earlier in their minor league years. Diminutive Alexi Amarista may be the “feel good” story of 2011. He’s likely to start the year at Salt Lake, and the PCL is always generous to hitters, but he too draws few walks and tends to chase bad pitches.
If Aybar and Kendrick have another disappointing year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Angels have Segura at shortstop with Triple-A Salt Lake by season’s end as half of a double-play tandem with Amarista at second base.
The pitching prospect depth shallowed significantly in the last year, due to the Alberto Callaspo and Dan Haren trades. The Angels sent Sean O’Sullivan and Will Smith to Kansas City for Callaspo. Joe Saunders, Tyler Skaggs, Pat Corbin and Rafael Rodriguez went to Arizona for Haren.
I’ll be watching closely the progress of three pitchers — Tyler Chatwood, Trevor Recking and Garrett Richards.
Chatwood was the Angels’ 2010 minor league pitcher of the year. With High-A Rancho Cucamonga, he had a 1.77 ERA in 14 starts (81.1 IP), averaged 7.7 strikeouts per 9 IP and had a SO:BB ratio of 1.91. Promoted mid-season to Double-A Arkansas, his ERA climbed to 3.82 (68.1 IP), his strikeout rate dropped to 4.7 per 9 IP, and had a SO:BB ratio of 1.3:1. At age 20, he would have been one of the youngest starters in the Texas League, where he should resume in 2011.
Reckling was the 2009 minor league pitcher of the year, but at age 21 couldn’t handle Triple-A Salt Lake (8.53 ERA in 69.2 IP) and at mid-season found himself back in Double-A with Arkansas (4.56 ERA in 79.0 IP). Trevor is pretty much the only significant left-handed starting pitcher prospect left in the system, so the Angels need him to mature past his growing pains.
Richards will be 23 on May 27, and will probably start the season with Double-A Arkansas. Between Low-A Cedar Rapids (19 starts) and High-A Rancho Cucamonga (7 starts), Richards averaged 9.4 strikeouts per 9 IP. He has a mid-90s fastball, slider, changeup and curve ball. The curve could be a “plus” pitch but he seems reluctant to use it.
It’s possible that the Travelers’ opening night roster could include Chatwood, Reckling and Richards in what might be the elite starting rotation in the Texas League. Of the three, I think Richards has a chance to move up the fastest due to his age and overall repertoire.
Will Smith pitching for Orem in the 2008 Pioneer League championship series.
Oh, one another pitcher I’ll be watching — from afar — is Will Smith. Traded to the Royals, I’ve always thought his ceiling is underestimated by many observers. Prior to the trade, he had a strange odyssey that saw him move up from Rancho to Salt Lake as an emergency after the Bees’ rotation was decimated by promotions. He’d been sent down to Arkansas when he was traded. He finished the regular season back in High-A with Wilmington in the Carolina League, where he had a 2.80 ERA in eight starts (54.2 IP). Always stingy with the base on balls, Will struck out 51 and walked four.
Those numbers are not a typo.
The Royals then assigned him to their Double-A team’s post-season roster. Smith started the Northwest Arkansas Naturals’ title game against Midland, pitching 6 2/3 shutout innings. I wasn’t surprised, because I saw him on the mound for Rookie-A Orem in the 2008 Pioneer League playoffs. In a pressure game, Will goes into a higher gear.
If Smith returns to Double-A for 2011, it’s likely he will face his former Angels teammates for the first time since the trade. In a year or two, it might happen again at the major league level.
Ty Cobb sliding into third base about 100 years ago.
Go to a professional baseball game these days, and you’re likely to see a baserunner slide with his hands first into a bag.
It’s the wrong way to do it, but it looks flashy.
The right way to do it is to slide feet first. It protects the hands and the head. All too many baserunners jam a finger sliding hands-first (commonly known as “head-first”), which is why you sometimes see a runner clutch his batting gloves in his hands when running the bases. If his hand is closed, he’s less likely to jam a finger.
Look at photos taken a century ago of Ty Cobb, arguably the best baserunner in the history of the game. You’ll never find a photo of him sliding head-first. You’ll find photos of him sliding feet first, sharpened spikes high, as he goes into a base. But never with his hands first.
When I was the Angels’ fall instructional league last October, I saw the coaching staff use a classic training technique to teach the players the proper way to slide.
Out came the sliding mats, a foam-cushioned rubber sheet placed on grass. Players remove their shoes and run towards the mat is if it were a base. They can flop on it and slide, like the Wham-O Slip ‘N Slide we slid on as children.
Not wanting to risk a tear to the uniform pants, the coaches broke out the old Angels road jersey pants worn during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Needless to say, not everyone had a fitting pant-size. Some couldn’t even button their waist bands.
Below are some photos from the sliding drill. You can find photos of fall instructional league players in the FutureAngels.com Digital Photo Gallery where reprints are available for purchase.
Angels minor leaguers await their turn on the sliding mat.
Carlos Ramirez. (Who says catchers can’t run?)
Jose Jimenez. (Another catcher shows his wheels.)
When my wife and I moved to Florida in June 2009, I posted a series of articles under the title of “Coast to Coast.” Click here to catch up. The idea was to keep friends and readers updated on what was happening with my personal life away from Angels baseball.
I haven’t posted one of these in a while, so here’s what’s new.
In addition to the FutureAngels.com web site and this blog, I have two other sites.
SpaceCoastBaseball.com covers professional and amateur baseball here in Brevard County, which is commonly known as the Space Coast because we have Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island, etc. I’ve done for Brevard County in the last year what I’ve done for Angels minor league baseball since 1998 — photos, videos, commentary, etc.
The big difference is that baseball is way down the pecking order here. We have baseball fans, but people seem more interested in football, basketball and water sports. This just isn’t a baseball mecca like Southern California. The local newspaper, Florida Today, has sportswriters who cover baseball but they really don’t have the depth on the subject of the typical SoCal sportswriter. Over the last year, I’ve made many long conversations on and off the record with the sportswriters, educating them about the inner workings of professional baseball. From time to time, I’m once of those “quotables” they call whenever they need to fill a story with a couple paragraphs.
The Washington Nationals’ minor league complex is 20 miles away in Viera. I film and photograph their players in the summer and fall leagues. I’m probably the only person to film and photograph both Mike Trout and Bryce Harper this year! The Nats invited me to film his little press conference after his first fall instructional league game. It was a Florida Today sportswriter, a reporter from MLB Advanced Media (I think!), and me with my camcorder. Like I said, the baseball universe here is fairly small.
Across the parking lot (which is an unpaved grass lot, by the way, filled with potholes) is the Nats’ spring training park, Space Coast Stadium. During the regular season, the minor league Brevard County Manatees play there. The Manatees are in the Advanced-A Florida State League, the equivalent of Rancho Cucamonga and now Inland Empire in the California League. They’re a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate, not a Nats affiliate. Long story.
Like most minor league teams, the Manatees have limited resources, so anyone who steps forward to volunteer is welcomed. They don’t have the money to do radio broadcasts, so I volunteered to webcast fifteen home games on the Internet, as well as the FSL All-Star Game which they hosted. If you want to hear me talk about someone else’s players other than the Angels, click here for the Manatees webcast archive.
With very little broadcast experience, but a damn strong idea of how I thought a game should be called, I found myself experimenting with finding my own style. It was a mix of advice from long-time Angels minor league broadcasters — Steve Klauke in Salt Lake, Phil Elson in Arkansas, John Rodgers in Cedar Rapids — who gave me advice. I cherry-picked elements of their styles I liked. But if truth be told, much of it is a whole lot of Vin Scully with a dash of Dick Enberg.
Growing up in Southern California, those were the two broadcasters I heard and admired the most. Scully has a minimalist style, epitomized by his famous call of Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series homer — “High fly ball to deep right field, she is gone!” What else do you need to know?! So I always tried to use as few words as possible. Dick Enberg had a slightly more folksy style and his catch phrases. I don’t have one for a homer because I think that’s really overdone, but I do have a standard opening as Scully does, and instead of Enberg’s “Oh my!” I came up with “Wowee!”
We don’t sell advertising, so between innings I just keep chatting with the audience, which is mostly players’ parents and loved ones. Many FSL teams don’t have broadcasts, so we often had players’ parents and fans from other teams. I did three Tampa Yankees games this year, and received e-mails from fans in New York, so you never know who might be listening. In the last game, when the Tampa second baseman was hurt, I got an e-mail from his worried mother, which impresses upon you how important a lifeline these webcasts are for the families. I think that August 26 game was probably the best job I did all year; click here to listen.
It was fun. I used radio booth #1 in the press box, the booth for the Nats’ parent club broadcasters during spring training. I got to live out a personal fantasy and had some memorable moments, such as when the home plate umpire was knocked out by a foul ball and had to leave the game. One of the Brewers’ roving instructors was recruited as a second umpire while the infield umpire moved behind home plate. I called an All-Star game. I even did a walking tour video of Space Coast Stadium so the players’ parents and other listeners could see the parts of the ballpark regularly discussed on the webcasts.
I’ve volunteered for other jobs. I do some administrative work and database design for Brevard County Fire Rescue. They have a volunteer firefighter program, much more active than any I ever saw in SoCal. When I graduated from college too many years ago, I worked for the Irvine Police Department as a dispatcher. I’ve always missed being around public safety, so this is an opportunity to be around that profession again, although it’s with fire and not police.
If you’re a regular reader, you know one reason we moved here is we’re space geeks. I’ve always wanted to teach about space history, and now I have the opportunity. The Air Force Space & Missile Museum at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) uses volunteers to teach tourists about the early days of the American space program. We operate out of the blockhouse where the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer 1. A couple hundred yards across the field from us is the complex where Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom were launched in 1961, the first Americans into space.
As a tourist, I came here many times, but now access is restricted due to post-9/11 security. Most of our traffic comes from bus tours out of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Visitor Complex. We walk them through the blockhouse, which still has much of its original equipment from 1957, and an adjacent exhibit hall, and in 45 minutes try to explain the entire history of U.S. military and civilian space flight. It can’t be done, but we’re given the flexibility to discuss what we want, and everyone has a different niche. I talk more about history, while some of the old-timers who actually worked here at CCAFS reminisce about their personal experiences.
As with the other volunteer efforts, this one pays nothing too. We do, however, get “perks.” We have a badge that lets go anywhere at CCAFS and KSC we want, so long as it’s unrestricted. Last week I drove up the long road along the beach that passes all the historic launch pads from the 1960s, then past active pads used by Atlas, Delta and SpaceX. I knew this road eventually comes to Pad 39A, where the Space Shuttle is launched. Could I really go through?
I came around a corner and there it was, the Shuttle stack on the pad, about a mile away. A red stop flight was flashing, and a lone security guard stepped out of his shack. I explained I was just out exploring, and had been told we can go through when no Shuttle is on the pad. He said that’s true!
So I turned around and went to check out SpaceX at Pad 40. SpaceX hopes to be the first company to offer strictly commercial rockets, selling flights on Falcon 9 to government and private customers. Their second test flight is scheduled for December 7. I drove into the parking lot which is about 100 yards from the pad.
Hopefully you’re starting to understand why we space geeks moved here!
I’m still looking for a paying job, but they’re hard to find in the Space Coast. The unemployment rate is about 13%, and with the Shuttle being retired in 2011 thousands more are scheduled for layoff. I was offered one job with Brevard County and accepted, but they had to cancel because the position was eliminated due to budget cuts. I interviewed for a job with a small contractor at KSC, then was called and told there’s a holdup on funding and they’d call if/when that comes through.
Meanwhile, there’s lots of play time! So long as I don’t expect to be paid.
When the paying job finally comes, I know it will affect my ability to not just continue the volunteer work but also FutureAngels.com. Being almost 3,000 miles away from Anaheim, it’s a lot harder to stay on top of things, especially with no Angels minor league affiliate nearby. If money permits, I’d like to visit Arkansas in 2011 and maybe catch Salt Lake on the road somewhere in the Midwest.
But as much as I love my Angels family, space is calling. We’ll see what happens once I answer.
Everyone loves Mike Trout, who ranked #1 on the FutureAngels.com 2010 Top 10 Prospects Report.
The FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects Report is now online. Click here to read the report.
The Top 10 are:
1. Mike Trout OF (no surprise)
2. Hank Conger C
3. Jean Segura 2B
4. Garrett Richards RHP
5. Randal Grichuk OF
6. Mark Trumbo 1B-OF
7. Fabio Martinez RHP
8. Alexi Amarista 2B
9. Trevor Reckling LHP
10. Jeremy Moore OF
I’m sure there will be a lot of debate about who’s NOT on the list, starting with Tyler Chatwood who was named the Angels’ minor league pitcher of the year.
Chatwood is probably #11. I debated in my mind back and forth about Chatwood versus Reckling. Two factors weighed in Reckling’s favor. One is that, if you read his review, Reckling’s problem is command of his fastball. Chatwood has a killer 12-6 curve, but still can’t consistently throw it where he wants. It seems to me it’s easier to solve the fastball problem than the curve problem. The second factor is that, after they traded Joe Saunders, Tyler Skaggs, Pat Corbin and Will Smith, the Angels are desperately thin on left-handed starting pitcher prospects. Reckling has more value in terms of organizational depth than Chatwood, but that’s not meant as an insult at all, just a reflection of their lack of LHP prospects.
Chatwood’s strikeout rate dropped from 7.7 per 9 IP at Rancho to just 4.7 with Arkansas. Reckling’s rate wasn’t all that great either, but he was asked to pitch at a much higher level. Both are very young pitchers and, as I said, a reasonable argument could be made for either one to make the Top 10.
No relievers made the Top 10 list, although the Angels have many relief prospects — Jordan Walden, Michael Kohn, Ysmael Carmona, Steven Geltz and more. As I discussed in the article, my thinking has evolved on relievers. They work a relatively small part of a game, so in my mind it’s hard to say a guy who throws one or two innings is more valuable than one who throws five to seven, or a position player who’s in the lineup regularly. If we had an absolute killer closer on the cusp, I’d certainly give him serious thought, but this year I couldn’t justify in my mind one over any of the others.
I really wanted to find a place for Luis “Lucho” Jimenez, who I think is a great hitting prospect, but again who would I drop? You may have your own choices; as always, it’s a matter of opinion. And I’m sure there are many more for whom an argument could be made.
Anyway, enjoy reading the report and posting your comments. This is the tenth year I’ve written a Top 10 report; click here for the index.