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October 31, 2014

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Former Rebel Navarro stuck behind Pujols, thriving in third Triple-A season

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Morry Gash / AP

The Los Angeles Angels drafted Efren Navarro with the 1,450th selection in the 2007 draft.

Efren Navarro

Los Angeles Angels Milwaukee Brewers during the inning of spring training baseball game Saturday, March 5, 2011, in Phoenix, Ariz. Launch slideshow »

When Efren Navarro was selected by the Los Angeles Angels in the 50th round of the 2007 MLB First-Year Player Entry Draft out of UNLV, common logic would have suggested the junior return to the Rebels for his senior season.

After all, not many ballplayers selected in the final round of the draft reach the major leagues, and Navarro had missed part of his junior year recovering from elbow surgery.

Then, Navarro talked with his parents, realizing it didn’t matter where he was selected. He had a chance to chase his dream — something that might not come around again.

“They were like, ‘Hey, what if this is the only shot you have? This is an open door for you. They are going to give you a jersey. Why not try it out and see what happens?’” Navarro said.

“Sure enough, I took a shot and I’m still in it. And in 2011, I made the big leagues. Hopefully I will get back up there soon.”

Fast forward seven seasons and Navarro — the 1,450th selection in the 2007 draft — is a proven minor leaguer with credentials to merit another promotion to the big leagues. He’s in his third season as the first baseman for the Salt Lake Bees, the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate, who opened a series Friday at Cashman Field against the Las Vegas 51s.

Navarro, 27, is the top fielding first baseman in minor league baseball, committing just 10 errors in 320 games the past three seasons with the Bees. He’s batting .327 this season as the Bees’ cleanup hitter and hit .294 last year with seven home runs and 74 RBIs.

For all intents and purposes, he’s ready to be a big leaguer, putting up numbers to validate a call-up.

However, in the Angels’ organization there is one problem — future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols mans first base, creating a big-time roadblock for Navarro.

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Los Angeles Angels' Albert Pujols adjusts his batting gloves during spring training baseball practice Monday, Feb. 27, 2012, in Tempe, Ariz.

Not only is Navarro working each game for a promotion with Anaheim, he is essentially auditioning for other teams. The trade deadline is one month away, and he’ll become a free agent after this season.

“That is the thing he has under his control is his mindset and how he goes about his business,” Salt Lake manager Keith Johnson said. “Let everyone else make the decisions. He is doing his part to put himself in the conversation; if not with us, with someone. The things he has done at this level for the amount of time (is helping) that track record get longer and longer.”

Navarro was a September call-up in 2011 with the Angels, getting two hits in 10 at-bats and living the experience of the lifetime — the 50th-round pick, thanks to the advice of his parents, was on baseball’s biggest stage.

Navarro came to UNLV from Lynwood, Calif., near Los Angeles. He stayed at home during his monthlong stint in the big leagues, and his family attended each home game.

“It was everything I dreamed about, especially being able to drive 20 minutes to home after the game,” Navarro said. “I finally able to say I was in the big leagues. It was something I dreamed about since I was 5 years old. Just to see (my family’s) smile was worth the accomplishment.”

If Navarro returns to the major leagues, his elite fielding ability will be one of the main reasons. He has just 39 errors in 7,019 minor-league fielding chances in 726 games — all but two games at first base, where he’s recorded more than 6,000 putouts.

“I want my teammates to have confidence in me as a first baseman,” Navarro said. “If they make a good play but make a bad throw, I am there to pick them up. I take a good amount of pride in their fielding percentage. If they make the throw, I will catch it for them.”

He’s also making a name for himself at the plate. Although he doesn’t hit for power, Navarro is such a professional hitter that Johnson bats him in the cleanup spot. In 2011, he batted .316 for the Bees with 73 RBIs and has continued knocking in runs this year with 34 RBIs in 46 games. Friday, he shined in his return to Las Vegas, going 4-for-4 with two RBIs in a 6-5 loss to the 51s.

“When he gets up with runners in scoring position, what you are looking for is a really good at-bat and he provides that,” Johnson said. “He has the awareness and the ability.”

Navarro hopes that ability finally translates into a permanent stay in the big leagues. Just don’t expect him to be upset that he’s behind Pujols.

“Going into spring training, I really tried to pick his brain,” he said. “He’s a future Hall of Famer and a Gold Glover. That’s something I want to be one day.”

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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