TEMPE, Ariz.â€”For those who follow prospects, no player offers more mystery than the big money international free agent. Obviously the club that signs them believes in their ability or they would not give them big dollars, but we have no context to compare their previous level of competition to.
The Angels gave Korean righthander Young-Il Jung a cool million last August based on the recommendation of part-time scout Charlie Kim and international scouting supervisor Clay Daniel. The size of the investment is a clear indication of the Angels belief in his ability and Jung did enough in instructional league last fall that he was rated as the Angelsâ€™ No. 4 prospect in our Prospect Handbook. Now in his first spring training, the 18-year-old is doing his best to acclimate himself to American culture. While most big money amateur free agents are from Latin America and have a number of Spanish speaking teammates to communicate with, Jung does not have that luxury. Fortunately, he has Hank Conger.
The Angelsâ€™ first-rounder in 2006 out of a Huntington Beach, Calif. high school, Conger was born to two Korean parents. His mother spoke Korean in the house growing up so he has done a lot to ease Jungâ€™s transition.
â€œWe came to instructs and that was his first time coming to the U.S. and we got to room together so that kind of worked everything out,â€ Conger said. â€œI can understand everything, but it is hard for me to speak sometimes, and read and write of course.â€
The Angels have hired a full-time translator for Jung, but Conger is the only teammate he can directly communicate with. The Angels purposely roomed them together in instructional league as a result and Conger has done his best to ease the transition for player who is undoubtedly experiencing culture shock.
â€œProbably the biggest thing for him is the eating, the way he eats,â€ Conger said. â€œHe has been trying to find some Korean restaurants to go to around here. There are a couple that are pretty good.â€
The Angels have Jung taking personal English lessons as opposed to joining the Latin American players. And though it would be easy to keep him and Conger together because they can communicate, both farm director Tony Reagins and manager of baseball operation Abe Flores indicated that would not be a factor.
â€œHe has to be able to grasp English before we can let him loose in Cedar,â€ Flores said in reference to their low Class A affiliate in Cedar Rapids.
The other tricky aspect of Jungâ€™s development is figuring out how much he can pitch in his first full season as the Angels will clearly want to protect their investment.
â€œFrom what I know, it sounds like he threw too much (as an amateur), so I will be especially cautious,â€ pitching coordinator Kernan Ronan said.
Jung has a heavy fastball that sits from 88-92 and he complements it with a variety of pitches. Conger, who caught him in instructional league, offered the following scouting report.
â€œHe is more of a typical Korean pitcher, a drop and drive kind of guy. He has got a pretty heavy fastball and a splitter and a good slider. He has a change and a curve too. He has a lot of pitches and I donâ€™t know what the pitching coach is going to do with all his pitches, but his fastball and slider could actually get him through a game.
Ronan indicated that they are looking to streamline his repertoire to focus on the fastball, slider and changeup. The next biggest task for him this season will be figuring out where to eat.
â€œThe most important thing was him feeling comfortable coming in and if I helped at least a little bit, I guess I did my part,â€ Conger said.
Readers of Baseball America know that Congerâ€™s name is actually Hyun, but his grandfather nicknamed him Hank in honor of Hank Aaron. Therefore, it was no surprise that Conger was wearing No. 44. Or was it.
â€œI guess it is kind of a coincidence,â€ Conger said.â€ The team gave it to me when I walked into the Arizona League. I thought it was kind of funny that they gave me this number.
The switch-hitting catcher wore No. 35 in high school but indicated that he would stick with 44 as a pro. Conger did not participate in live batting practice on Sunday, but it had nothing to do with the hamate bone in his right hand that he broke while swinging a bat last summer. That injury is fully healed, but Conger was feeling a little under the weather so the Angels told him to take the day off.
One pitcher who did participate in live BP was righthander Stephen Marek. Angels pitchers threw all their pitches in side sessions on Sunday, but it was only fastballs during BP. Marek dominated at Cedar Rapids and held his own at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga last season much like righthander Nick Adenhart. But while Adenhart got an invitation to big league camp, Marek did not.
â€œHe had a little forearm tenderness coming into spring, so we wanted to be extra cautious,â€ Flores said.
While Adenhart is the top pitching prospect in the organization, Flores said that Marek is not far behind and cited his exceptional fastball command and plus curveball as evidence. And though both hurlers spent some of the season at high Class A in 2006, they are likely headed back there this year.
â€œWe donâ€™t like to jump guys over levels,â€ Flores said. â€œMaster a level, that is our mantra. I like it and I have seen the benefits.
For Whom The Bell Tolls
Another big name righthander who took part in live BP was Trevor Bell, the Angelsâ€™ supplemental first-round pick in the 2005 draft who is a lot more relaxed in his second spring training.
â€œThis year I am a lot more calm and I know what is going on,â€ Bell said. â€œI am able to have a little bit more fun this year, Last year I was a little uptight and worried about impressing people and this year I kind of know what is coming.â€
Itâ€™s surprising that Bell would ever get nervous because the 20-year-old, whose grandfather was Bozo the Clown, starred in a number of television as a child.
â€œI did a few commercials, everything from Kelloggâ€™s to Old Navy and Hot Wheels. Short little quick 30 second commercials, nothing much,â€ Bell explained. â€œI would have to say one of the Old Navy commercials (was my favorite) because I was jumping in the pool and we were out in Palm Springs. It was pretty cool.â€
When discussing his throwing program, Bell made an interesting revelation. Turns out that Bell attended one of Alan Jaegerâ€™s pitching clinics back in January of 2006. Readers of this blog know that Jaeger, a long-tossing guru that encouragues his pupils to long toss up to 300 feet, accompanied me to a hockey game on Saturday night.
â€œWe (long tossed) 300 feet and came in and did the bands and all that,â€ Bell said. â€œIt is amazing.â€
Despite his enthusiasm for Jaegerâ€™s program, he chose to do a program at his high school this past offseason instead.
â€œSometimes you do something different to see how that will work and maybe it works better and sometimes it doesnâ€™t,â€ Bell said. â€œYou figure along your career which one works for you and which one doesnâ€™t.â€
Ronan has his players throw from as much distance as they want, but only if they can throw it in a straight line. Though Bell did not say the Angelsâ€™ told him not to do the 300 foot long tossing, there is no way he can throw 300 feet on a straight line.
Big Leaguing It
â€¢ The Angelsâ€™ minor leaguers finished early, so I caught the last few innings of the big league game against Oakland. I arrived just in time to see Nick Swisher hit a Chris Resop fastball over the 32-foot tall batterâ€™s eye in center field, which is 420 feet away from home plate. A nice poke if I may say so myself. In the next frame Daric Barton smoked a Resop fastball over the right field wall for his first homer of the spring.
His counterpart, Casey Kotchman, had two hits on the day and looks fully recovered form the mononucleosis that cost him much of 2006.
â€œI would probably say September or October, towards that area, is when I fully felt fresh,â€ Kotchman said. â€œI just lost strength stamina, endurance. I was able to do some things but the concentration level wasnâ€™t very good. The attention span, it was tough to concentrate.â€
In an effort to make up for lost time, the 2001 first-rounder headed to Puerto Rico to play winter ball.
â€œI felt recovered so I wanted to go play, kind of like a springboard or a tuneup for spring training,â€ the 24-year-old said. â€œI ended up towards the end starting to feel real comfortable. Because of the layoff, I had not played in several months. In the end I felt good and it was a good tuneup for spring training.â€
â€¢ I bumped into Angelsâ€™ owner Arte Moreno on the elevator to the clubhouse and when I introduced myself he complimented Baseball America, but not because the Angels are the only team to rank in BAâ€™s top five organizations in the past five seasons.
â€œI love your college baseball coverage,â€ Moreno said. â€œI went to Arizona so I am a big fan of their program.â€
I mentioned that I had gone to watch Arizona State beat Long Beach State on Friday night and he told me Long Beach took them down on Saturday. He wasnâ€™t kidding about his love for the college game.
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