Conger aims to secure role as backup catcher

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Hank Conger probably thought it would happen sooner.

But now, as he enters yet another Spring Training, he's suddenly 25, heading into his last option year, coming off three straight seasons of being deemed primarily a Triple-A catcher and hoping to finally stick full-time in the Majors as a backup to Chris Iannetta.

"Everyone I've talked to, the biggest hurdle is Triple-A to the big leagues," Conger said. "That's definitely one thing I always remember. For me, [the last three years were] a big learning curve. But right now, I feel like I'm ready to try to overcome that next step."

That next step would be to finally show manager Mike Scioscia and the Angels' coaching staff that he's Major League-ready defensively, regarding his throwing, his blocking and, perhaps most important around here, his rapport with the pitching staff.

Conger rose through the system fairly quickly, given how difficult it normally is for catchers to develop. By 2009, at 21 and just three years removed from being the No. 25 overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft out of Huntington Beach High School, he was thriving in Double-A. And the following year, he made yet another jump to Triple-A Salt Lake.

It's that last hurdle that continues to elude Conger, though. In 2011, with Mike Napoli gone and the Angels looking for more pop behind the plate, Conger made the team out of Spring Training but was sent down in mid-July after hitting just .214 in 50 games. Last year, he began the season in the Minors, injured his right elbow in April and wound up playing in only seven Major League games.

Now, he's competing with the likes of John Hester and Luke Carlin for the backup spot.

"I feel like I've done a pretty good job of trying to get on the same page with our pitchers and I feel like my throwing has gotten better," said Conger, who stayed away from playing offseason baseball for the first time in a while. "Really, now it's about going out there and proving it. I mean, I can say all I want. I can say, 'It's getting better, it's getting better.' But now it's time to go show it on the field."

But Conger, a switch-hitter who has posted a .297/.359/.467 slash line in his Minor League career, won't be a big league starter any time soon.

That much was assured on Oct. 5, when Iannetta signed a three-year, $15.55 million extension.

"He earned it," Conger said. "For me, whether they sign him or anybody else or they didn't, I still have to go in trying to get better and try to prove better, because in this game, nothing's handed to you."