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Cowart ready for challenge of Double-A ball

ANAHEIM -- In an Angels organization that beefs up payroll, loads up at the big league level and, as somewhat of a result, is thin in the Minors, clear paths to the Majors are rare; almost nonexistent.

In that sense, Kaleb Cowart is one of the fortunate ones.

The 20-year-old switch-hitter plays third base, a position that will be occupied by Alberto Callaspo in 2013, but could become vacant if he leaves as a free agent the following offseason. That has many thinking about Cowart taking over full-time in 2014.

Fair? Probably not. Cowart was drafted out of high school, played at the full-season levels of the Minors for the first time in 2012 and will debut at Double-A in 2013 -- and, hey, they can't all be Mike Trout.

But Cowart -- now the Angels' top-rated prospect after an impressive season at both Class A levels -- is simply that good.

"I do think it's realistic for him," said assistant general manager Scott Servais, who oversees scouting and player development. "I don't want to put a timetable on any player, but he made a lot of strides this last year. ... If you're going along the track, you would think maybe by the end of '14 he can show up and we kind of see what we have there. But who knows. Every player is different."

For comparison's sake, the 6-foot-3 Cowart has been linked to the Padres' Chase Headley and former Braves icon Chipper Jones -- if for nothing else because they're both switch-hitters of similar stature.

Bring up the latter, and Cowart smiles.

"As a kid, growing up, I really wanted to be just like Chipper," he said. "I really did."

Cowart is a product of Adel, Ga., inhabited by little over 5,000 people, located about 200 miles from the Braves' home stadium and basically a postage stamp in the southern-most part of Georgia. Baseball was his first love, but hunting was 1A.

At age 8, Cowart killed his first deer. And ever since then, most of his time away from fields has been spent in the woods of North Dakota, South Dakota, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia, hunting buck -- or duck, or geese, or pheasants, or coyotes, you name it.

"It's my escape from baseball," Cowart says in his noticeable Southern drawl. "We have a lot going on during the season. We need to relax, just like everybody else. I try to get outside, get outdoors."

Cowart starred as a shortstop, third baseman and pitcher at Cook County High School, dominating the mostly-inferior amateur competition of Georgia and eventually was named Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year after his senior season -- when he batted .654 with 11 homers and 36 steals (in 36 attempts), and went 10-1 with a 1.05 ERA on the mound.

Shortly after that, the Angels took him as a position player with the No. 18 overall pick in the 2010 Draft. But it wasn't until hours before the deadline that the two sides settled on a $2.3 million signing bonus, almost $1 million more than the recommended slot.

Cowart was almost certain he'd be attending Florida State University that fall.

"I had already been to orientation, got my schedule, all my classes lined up," he said. "I had everything ready to roll."

Cowart appeared in 72 rookie league games in 2011, posting a .283/.345/.420 slash line. Then, in 135 games at Cedar Rapids and Inland Empire this past season, he notched a .276/.358/.452 slash line, adding 16 homers, 103 RBIs and 14 stolen bases en route to becoming the No. 46 prospect in all of baseball, as ranked by

"Kaleb did a great deal of good for his professional career with the year he had last year," GM Jerry Dipoto said. "We couldn't have asked for a whole lot more, truthfully, for a player of his age and of his stage of development to move through multiple levels."

Playing deeper into a season than ever, Cowart noticeably wore down in the season's waning days, especially by the time he got to the Arizona Fall League. But by eliminating a high leg kick from his stride, he also cut down on strikeouts and increased his walks. Cowart went from one strikeout every 3.9 plate appearances in 2011 to one every 5.5 in 2012; from one walk every 12.8 plate appearances in 2011 to one every nine in 2012.

His greatest hindrance remains batting from the left side -- which can be quite an issue considering how many more right-handed pitchers walk the Earth.

"He's very comfortable right-handed," Servais said. "He gets into the box and he's not thinking about mechanics or anything -- he's locked into what the pitcher's going to do. I think left-handed at times, he feels maybe out of sync and mechanically is just not right, so he will spend some more time mentally grinding through his left-handed at-bats."

That -- and plenty more reps, of course -- is what stands between Cowart and an everyday job at third base with the Angels, where Troy Glaus and Chone Figgins thrived and where Dallas McPherson and Brandon Wood failed.

"I still have some learning to do," Cowart said, "and I think Double-A is going to be a huge step for me. I have to prove that I can hit in Double-A this year whenever I get there. I'm excited to see what happens. I'd love to be there in 2014, maybe get a shot this year if I perform well and my numbers are right. This is going to be a huge year."

Los Angeles Angels, Kaleb Cowart