Commentary

Mike Trout waits for his moment

Updated: June 5, 2011, 2:55 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The Arkansas Travelers play in an immaculate, little brick stadium just across the Arkansas River from the Little Rock skyline. The few thousand fans who show up to the Double-A ballpark on a midweek evening tend to cluster on the patio down the right-field line, where they can sample an assortment of cold draft beers for between $3 and $5.25. It's a beautiful setting to watch minor league baseball.

Meanwhile, the old stadium, Ray Winder Field, sits abandoned out by Interstate 630 and soon will be in shambles. They just gave away the seats. The wrecking balls and bulldozers aren't far behind. Never mind that Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played there, that Ferguson Jenkins used to pitch for the home team.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
John Cordes/Icon SMIThe Angels picked up Mike Trout with the 25th pick in the draft two years ago.

One of the joys of baseball is that, just as the old memories start to fade, new folk heroes crop up in cities and towns all across the middle of America.

One of them has been creating noise out of North Little Rock for a couple of months. The scouts who aim their rented Impalas, Malibus and Camrys toward Dickey-Stephens Park have birthed rumors of a mythical talent roaming the Texas League. They speak of a teenage player with the size of an NFL running back, the speed to blind an umpire and flummox a defense and the baseball savvy of a major league veteran.

The No. 1 prospect in baseball is a boy among men and a man among boys.

If everything you read about Mike Trout, 19, sounds fantastical, if it raises the hackles of skepticism on the back of your neck, have a little patience. All this praise, thick as it may seem, comes from seasoned baseball professionals, guys trained to quantify talent, to ferret out weaknesses.

It comes from employees of some of the 23 other teams who had a chance to draft Trout two years ago and let him slide, all the way to the Los Angeles Angels at No. 25.

Professional admirers

The Travs, as they're called here, take batting practice more than two hours before game time, in an empty stadium, rap music pumping. If you want to talk to someone who sees Trout play every day, you have to wait until it's over, walk up the staircase, down the concourse and through a green metal door into the Arkansas clubhouse.

"I can't tell people what I really think because they think I'm insane," Arkansas manager Bill Mosiello said from behind his desk. "Now, they're probably saying, 'You were right.'"

Scouts send Mosiello texts about Trout all the time. Here's one he got last season, when he managed him at Single-A Cedar Rapids, just a few months after Trout graduated from Millville High outside Philadelphia: Maybe this is what Mickey Mantle looked like at 18.

One said: My only prototype for him is Rickey Henderson.

Another said: I've been doing this 40 years. I've never seen a kid doing what he's doing.

The other night, two American League scouts were swapping information about Texas League players. One of them, who had just pulled into town, asked the other to describe Trout's speed. The other guy didn't say a word. He just got this canary-eating grin on his face and slowly traced the Nos. 8 and 0 in the air with his index finger.

In the parlance of scouts, 80 is the top of the scale. One scout timed Trout getting from home to first base in 3.75 seconds. All of Trout's times, assuming he doesn't stumble, fall in the 3.87-to-4.1 range. Ichiro Suzuki, all 5-foot-11, 170 pounds of him, who is off and running before contact out of the left side of the batter's box, usually covers that distance in about 3.85 seconds.

Trout is 6-2 and 220 pounds. He hits right-handed.

"The only thing you ask is, 'Is he an All-Star? Is he a perennial All-Star?'" one scout said.

"He's as good as they come," said another.

Perhaps, in the interests of balance, we should get this out of the way immediately: Trout is not the perfect baseball-playing machine. He's a mediocre base-stealer for his speed, his arm isn't a weapon and some doubt he'll hit the ball with enough lift to be a big-time slugger in the majors. When he hits home runs, they tend to be rising line drives, more like the trajectory of a Ryan Braun home run than a Prince Fielder blast. He takes too many first-pitch strikes for some people's tastes, often hitting behind in the count.

But those minor frailties, plus his age, might be the only things keeping Trout from major league stardom right now.

"He's like a man among boys," one of the scouts said. "You'd expect that in high school, not at Double-A."

Texas League dynamo

[+] EnlargeToby Gerhart
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesToby Gerhart still has value even though Adrian Peterson's recovery is going well.

Trout is a New Jersey guy. He's new to the weather around these parts, where the jet stream often produces the frightening confluence of conditions -- warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and cold air from Canada -- to create some of the most violent weather forces on Earth. They've been torturing this region all summer.

Trout has been haunted, at times, by the sirens.

"It's different," Trout said. "I'm not used to the tornadoes and stuff."

Trout himself seems the confluence of such unusual forces coming together in a baseball player. You just don't see guys this big who move like he moves. Ryan Mount, the Travs' second baseman, is reminded of a guy he used to play travel ball against in the Inland Empire: Toby Gerhart, the Stanford running back who finished second in Heisman Trophy balloting a couple of years ago and now plays for the Minnesota Vikings.

If size and athletic ability were all it took to be a great baseball player, scouts would be swarming the NFL combine, hoping to scoop up that sport's cast-offs. It's not just those things, even combined with his rare patience, his .925 OPS and his 18 extra-base hits in 45 games that have people so excited. It's who he is.

You want to find out, so you sit Trout down for an interview in the dugout. With his square jaw, his crew cut and blue eyes, his athletic, slightly bow-legged gait, he looks like an actor from a 1950s war movie.

He couldn't be more courteous. He gives you all the time you need. But even as he talks, his eyes dart all around an empty field. His leg taps nervously on the black dugout floor. His is a body that needs to be in motion. Sitting him down for an interview is like sitting a big jungle cat down for tea. It doesn't feel natural.

He expresses himself with his body, on the dirt and grass, not to a reporter.

"I just go out there and play ball, have fun," Trout said. "Once I get on the field and put on the uniform, hear the national anthem, I just go out there and try to win."

In the third inning of a recent game, he got a hanging breaking ball from a Springfield Cardinals right-hander and lined it into the left-center-field gap. The center fielder, a kid named Alex Castellanos, made a good backhand stop to cut it off. By the time the relay throw reached third, Trout was pulling in standing up. There might not be another baseball player on the planet who could have gotten there that quickly. Very few would have tried.

"If it's a single, I think double," Trout said. "If it's a double, I think triple."

There's a massive store of confidence in this kid. Some might call it arrogance, but it's the internal kind, not the kind that tends to alienate teammates.

"Deep down, I know he knows he's the best," Mosiello said.

And he shows it, without saying it, every chance he can.

In the third inning of a recent game, he got a hanging breaking ball from a Springfield Cardinals right-hander and lined it into the left-center-field gap. The center fielder, a kid named Alex Castellanos, made a good backhand stop to cut it off. By the time the relay throw reached third, Trout was pulling in standing up. There might not be another baseball player on the planet who could have gotten there that quickly. Very few would have tried.

"If it's a single, I think double," Trout said. "If it's a double, I think triple."

Later in that same game, he hit a two-hopper to the shortstop and beat out the throw. The only person in the stadium who didn't think so was the first-base umpire. As he was jogging back to the dugout, Trout asked the ump, "What do you got on that?"

"He said, 'I didn't know you were that fast,'" Trout said. "He might have been surprised. I thought I was safe."

Everyone talks about another moment earlier this year. There was the game at Midlands where Trout hit a drive off the left-field wall. The fielder leaped, but missed it and the ball started bouncing toward the infield. Trout just kept running: inside-the-park home run. To straight-away left field.

All eyes on him

You know you're in Arkansas because you can get deer dogs, sold by a guy in a camouflage hat. You know you're at a minor league game because they have a rubber chicken-tossing contest before the top of the fourth.

May 22 is Hank Conger bobblehead doll night. June 10 is Peter Bourjos T-shirt jersey night.

Trout is sharing a three-bedroom house with teammates Garrett Richards, Trevor Reckling and Dillon Baird. They're paying $900 a month for a three-bedroom house 20 minutes from the stadium. Baird has to crash on the couch in the living room.

Every day while the team is at home, Trout eats lunch at Benihana, then drives his pickup truck 20 minutes to the ballpark. He might stand out on the field, but they say he blends right in with the guys, most of whom are four or five years older. If he's feeling the pressure of being one of the most-hyped young players in baseball, you can't tell.

"I remember when I was 19, not a care in the world," said Arkansas reliever Danny Sattler, 27. "He's always coming to the ballpark with good energy."

Hunter Everybody's watching him, the whole country. It's not just the organization, but even the opposing team. When he gets to the plate, everybody's keeping an eye on him.

-- Torii Hunter, Angels outfielder,
on Mike Trout

You talk to a handful of his teammates, often casually, and none of them has a bad thing to say about him. You think that was true when Barry Bonds was in Double-A?

Baird says he's weird, but a "good weird." Richards has seen him wake up in the middle of the night, eat a plate of chicken and go back to bed.

"You'd have to be around him for a day and just hear all the questions he asks. You're just like, 'Come on, is that really your question?' Just random things that he doesn't need to be asking," Baird said. "It's just hilarious."

During spring training, Angels veterans had some fun with Trout during team meetings. He did something to draw the attention of star pitcher Jered Weaver, who put Trout back in his place (in a corner reserved for minor leaguers) by convincing the scoreboard operator to post Trout's cell-phone number during a game. The message urged fans to call Trout with their baseball questions.

Trout says he got only three or four messages.

It's impossible to believe he's not feeling some pressure. Things are different for first-round picks, especially as they start drawing attention when they move through the system. For someone anointed the No. 1 player not wearing a major league uniform, it must be immense.

"Everybody's watching him, the whole country," said Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, a first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins in 1993. "It's not just the organization, but even the opposing team. When he gets to the plate, everybody's keeping an eye on him. The next guy comes up, they'll be looking around like, 'Doo-de-doo.'"

Fuzzy timeline

When the Angels were in Los Angeles at the end of the exhibition season, Hunter pulled Trout out of the clubhouse to a hallway leading toward the Dodger Stadium field. He wanted to offer him a little advice since it could be a year or so before he sees him again.

"He said, 'You're close. You've got to accept failure. If you need anything, call me,'" Trout said.

Failure, of course, is inevitable in baseball. The best hitters make outs in 70 percent of their at-bats. What the Angels are hoping Trout avoids is the kind of prolonged failure that can crush a young player's confidence, trample his talent so it can't blossom. That's why he's still at Double-A though his exploits suggest he might be good enough to help the big club now.

It's a debate between the immediate needs of the team and the long-term needs of a player. Given Trout's upside, the latter has trumped the former every time his name comes up.

Reporters have started asking manager Mike Scioscia about Trout almost every day, ever since Vernon Wells went on the disabled list a few ago with a strained groin. The Angels' offense has lacked dynamism most of the season. If there's one thing Trout offers, it's dynamism. For now, they're erring on the side of caution, leaving him on the farm.

Reporters have started asking manager Mike Scioscia about Trout almost every day, ever since Vernon Wells went on the disabled list a few weeks ago with a strained groin. The Angels' offense has lacked dynamism most of the season. If there's one thing Trout offers, it's dynamism. For now, they're erring on the side of caution, leaving him on the farm.

"I think that's a huge risk to take when you're talking about a guy with his upside," Scioscia said.

Nobody asked him anything, but after a few seconds, the manager started talking again. You get the impression Trout is never far from the front of Scioscia's mind as he continues to watch his team struggle to score runs.

"He's bridging that gap. Maybe in a month, if you're asking me, we're going to have a different conversation," Scioscia said.

Since 2000, the start of the Mike Scioscia era, the Angels have promoted a player from Double-A twice. One was Ervin Santana, who was handed a ticket to Triple-A as soon as his major league debut was over. The other was Casey Kotchman, one of the most polished minor leaguers the team has ever had. It's a conservative organization and there are voices inside the club who would prefer Trout develop in the minor leagues for another two seasons.

"When I moved a guy up, I waited until I knew that he knew he was ready," said former general manager Bill Stoneman. "It's about his confidence, not ours."

So, maybe that's it. When the Angels are sure Trout's confidence is right, they'll present him to their fans and introduce him to the American League. In other words, get ready. It may not be long.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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