Hank Conger needs to stake claim with Angels this season

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Angels are offering Hank Conger a plum opportunity to gain a foothold in the big leagues this season as a left-handed-hitting complement to starting catcher Chris Iannetta.

But it’s a limited-time offer.

This is the last season Conger, a first-round pick from Huntington Beach High in 2006, can be sent to the minor leagues without having to pass through waivers, where other teams can claim him. If Conger doesn’t establish himself as a major leaguer by next spring, he will probably be an ex-Angel.

“Relative to his baseball clock, he’s probably in a two-year window,” Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. “It’s very important for him to transition into a more consistent, ultimately productive major league player. He sees the opportunity in front of him. It’s there for the taking.”

Injuries, inconsistency and a lack of confidence have plagued Conger, 25, during a seven-year professional career in which he has been limited to 406 games behind the plate.

He reached triple-A Salt Lake in 2010 and spent the first half of 2011 in the big leagues, splitting time with Jeff Mathis and batting .273 with three home runs that April. But he appeared overmatched at and behind the plate for the next three months and in July was demoted to Salt Lake, where he spent almost all of 2012.

Conger caught a break when backup catcher Bobby Wilson was claimed off waivers by Toronto last October. A switch-hitter who is far more potent from the left side, Conger is a natural fill-in for Iannetta, who has a career batting average of only .232 against right-handers.

The other two catching candidates, John Hester and Luke Carlin, bat right-handed and have limited big league experience. Hester struggled defensively last season.

“This is the time where I really need to prove myself,” Conger said. “When you first get drafted, you get a lot more opportunities. But once you get up here, you have to show them you can play. After a while, the prospect label gets away from you and you have to produce.”

Some young catchers — see Mike Napoli — have chafed under the demands of Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher for the Dodgers. Conger acknowledged he felt a little overwhelmed breaking in while trying to handle a veteran pitching staff that featured Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Joel Pineiro.

“You can’t be timid — you have to take it upon yourself to get comfortable with the staff — but as a rookie, it’s a learning curve,” Conger said.

Not only did Conger’s batting average plummet to .203 in May, .219 in June and .105 in July, he struggled to find a consistent arm slot and release point and threw out only 12 of 65 (18%) base stealers in 2011.

His low point came on June 21 in Florida, when Conger sailed two throws high and wide to second, one on a pitchout. Though Conger had two hits, he was despondent afterward.

“It doesn’t seem like I’m bringing much to the table,” Conger said at the time. “I’m not really helping this team win.”

A month later, Conger was back in the minor leagues.

“The team was scuffling, and I was pressing,” Conger said. “Looking back, it was a tough time, but you have to fail to understand what it takes to succeed.

“A key to consistency for me is being confident in my abilities. It’s been a mental roller coaster. At times, I’ve felt really good about my catching. I’ve always felt comfortable with my ability to hit. It’s a matter of putting those things together.”

Scioscia said Conger has made “huge strides” defensively in two years, and Conger threw out 17 of 44 (28%) base-stealers at Salt Lake last season. Offensively, “he’s definitely ready for the challenge of big league pitching,” Scioscia said.

But Conger needs to show consistency in all phases to solidify a spot on the Angels’ bench.

“It’s tough enough trying to get to the big leagues, but it’s even tougher staying here,” Conger said. “This organization is not looking to rebuild; it’s here to win championships. If you’re not producing, you’re not going to play.”

If he fails, Conger can’t say he didn’t have the chance.