Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 2/26/12
Hank Conger must perform with some consistency in the big leagues or risk going from prospect to suspect. Catcher Hank Conger, a 2006 first-round pick who spent much of last season with the Angels, showing potential but also looking overmatched at times, isn't quite at that point. But he can see it from here. "Coming up through the minors, you're given numerous chances, but once you get up here, it's either produce or you don't play," said Conger, a former Huntington Beach High star. "It's pretty simple. Right now, I feel like I'm at a point where I have to start producing, or changes might happen." Nine days away from the exhibition opener, that sense of urgency can already be seen in spring-training drills. "At first glance," Manager Mike Scioscia said of Conger, "he looks like he has more of a purpose." But it is not reflected in the voices of the team's primary two decision makers, Scioscia and General Manager Jerry Dipoto. They see Conger as a still-developing 24-year-old switch-hitter who, because of shoulder injuries, has caught only 347 professional games in six seasons and is not a finished product. Of course, he's going to struggle to master the most demanding position in the sport. They see a rarity, a catcher with excellent bat speed and considerable power from the left side, and a perfect platoon partner for newly acquired catcher Chris Iannetta, a career .229 hitter from the right side. Conger also has two options left, meaning he can be sent to the minor leagues in 2012 and in 2013 without having to pass through waivers, so why rush to judgment now? "On the progression scale of a catcher, Hank is still a little bit on the young side," said Scioscia, the former Dodgers catcher. "He's showed the tools to be a front-line catcher who can lead a team to a championship, and that's obviously our goal. But I don't think there's a timeline that says we expect that to happen now." Dipoto shared the same sentiments. "Hank is cutting his teeth at the major league level," Dipoto said. "It's a rare bird who arrives at the big league level, sinks his teeth in on the first day and never has to make an adjustment or go back to the minor leagues. For every player who enters the big leagues, there's going to be a different height to the hurdle, and Hank is just figuring out how to get over the top of it." Conger thought his Edwin Moses moment came last season, when he broke camp with the Angels and shared catching duties with Jeff Mathis in the first half. He looked good in April, hitting .273 with three home runs and nine runs batted in, but his monthly averages dipped to .203 (May), .219 (June) and .105 (July). In 36 games over that span, he had seven RBIs. Worse in the eyes of Scioscia, Conger slipped defensively, sailing and bouncing throws to second base, failing to block some balls in the dirt and losing touch with some footwork and glove-to-hand exchanges. By late June, after a particularly rough series at Florida, Conger's confidence was shot. "It doesn't seem like I'm bringing much to the table with my overall performance," Conger said at the time. "I'm not really helping this team win." Conger figured once he reached the big leagues, he would stay there. On July 19, he was sent down to triple-A Salt Lake with a .214 average. He returned in late August and closed the season with a .209 average, .282 on-base percentage, six homers and 19 RBIs in 197 plate appearances. He threw out only 12 of 65 base stealers (18). "You play every day, you see how you started, and the next thing you know, you're in a funk," Conger said. "The biggest thing is how quickly you come out of your slump." Conger returned to the Arizona Fall League, primarily to work on defense, with an emphasis on footwork and arm slot. He spoke to different hitting coaches, focusing more on approach than mechanics. He added yoga to his workout regimen to improve his flexibility. It's doubtful the Angels will carry three catchers like they did for most of 2011, so if Conger doesn't beat out Bobby Wilson for the backup job, he'll likely return to triple A for more seasoning. "There's a natural feel a catcher acquires over time, a natural comfort zone with receiving, footwork and throwing," Scioscia said. "Hank has made a lot of strides, but he isn't the finished product." By Mike DiGiovanna
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