Middle ground key for Mike Trout
The Angels' phenom faces expectations piled as high as the Matterhorn
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- When a player as young and talented as Mike Trout pulls into the last station ahead of schedule, there's a tendency to presume extremes. Either he's about to be the biggest bust in baseball history or he just wrote the first anecdote for his Cooperstown induction speech.
It's easy to forget that the game is almost always contested somewhere in the middle.
Trout isn't in Anaheim a month before his 20th birthday because the Los Angeles Angels think he's going to run like Vince Coleman, hit like Pete Rose, slug like Hank Greenberg and make Willie Mays seem like Juan Rivera in the outfield.
Trout probably isn't even going to be here on his 20th birthday.
Here's kind of how Thursday's late-night discussion among manager Mike Scioscia, his coaches and general manager Tony Reagins went before they decided to promote Trout: Peter Bourjos is an excellent center fielder. Peter Bourjos has a strained right hamstring. Mike Trout is the next-best center fielder within reach. Get Mike Trout.
Scioscia has gotten addicted to good defense in his outfield this year. If you had to sit in the dugout and watch Rivera and Bobby Abreu play right in front of you for almost a year, you probably would be, too.
"Right now, he's the best fit to bring us that presence in center field, and we'll see what he can do on the offensive side," Scioscia said.
That's the beauty of Friday's move: It's so simple. The Angels don't have a pre-printed return ticket for Trout to the minor leagues, as they did for Ervin Santana when he made his major league debut straight from Double-A in 2005. But they made it clear Friday that Bourjos -- a wizard with his cleats and glove -- will be their starting center fielder when he comes back (and he's not even on the disabled list).
That means the Trout experience, Phase 1, could be as short as one week. But flashing a little talent this bright to the rest of the league probably isn't a bad idea -- it lets them know you've got it in case you need it. And I'm guessing it's not going to affect Trout's sense of self-worth much one way or another. He's a bright enough kid, with a chest full of pride. He knows the Angels just handed him a stack of house money.
The fun part about having Trout here is that, every day until he's gone, we can imagine what he'll one day be. Is his power going to blossom, or will he always set the table for others? Will he play in an All-Star Game before he can legally buy an alcoholic beverage? Should his nickname be "The Flying Fish" or, as his Twitter account suggests, just plain old "Trouty"? Have two players ever looked and acted so differently while wearing the same number and the same uniform as Vladimir Guerrero and Mike Trout?
I keep going back to what somebody who has seen Trout play as many professional games as anybody in the world told me when I was in Arkansas profiling the young outfielder a couple of months ago.
"If he somehow never lived up to our expectations, if he was a .270 hitter, he's going play great defense, run the bases great, play his tail off and be a great teammate," said Bill Mosiello, who managed Trout at Single-A and Double-A before taking a college job at Tennessee last month. "He's still a winning player. Now, is he going to be the best player that maybe we've seen? That remains to be seen."
Friday didn't give us a whole lot to work with, but it offered a fleeting glimpse of what all the fuss is about. Trout made a running grab in right-center to take a double away from Franklin Gutierrez. To paraphrase a famous sentence, one of the only guys who could have caught that ball, hit it. Another one caught it.
"I could see Peter Bourjos running that down; I could see Mike Trout running that down," Scioscia said. "Maybe Gutierrez could have run his own ball down. There aren't that many center fielders who have that much closing speed."
Otherwise, Trout caught a couple of routine fly balls, and saw a blooper drop in front of him, a single land to his left and Vernon Wells cut off a couple of balls in the gap that he could have caught. He went 0-for-3 with two fly balls and a sharp grounder to shortstop, but he certainly didn't look overmatched at any stage.
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The Angels have a pretty good thing going at the moment. Wells and Torii Hunter are picking it up. The pitching is tough. If the Angels win one game this weekend, they will have won eight straight series entering the All-Star break. Things are a whole lot more stable around this team than the last time it considered bringing Trout up, when Wells popped a groin muscle back in May.
"We just expect him to come up here and be Mike Trout, not try to save the franchise, not try to do anything extraordinary, just come out here and have fun," Reagins said. "His athletic ability and his overall ability will take care of itself."
Most prospect hounds hoped Trout would taste a cup of major league coffee in September, when rosters expand, not before the All-Star break. What convinced the Angels he was ready as a teenager wasn't anything spectacular. It wasn't seeing Trout pull into third with a standup triple after a line drive in the gap -- which he's done -- or touch all four bases after a fly ball off the left-field wall -- as he's done -- or reach first on a two-hopper to the shortstop -- as he's done.
What convinced them he was ready was so much more mundane. It was really a matter of showing up to work and doing what he does. Trout looked like a major leaguer when Reagins happened to be in Little Rock looking at the Angels' Double-A club last month. He carried himself with a quiet, big league swagger. He had proficient at-bats that he could repeat. He caught the balls that were hit near him.
"I felt real confident walking away from there that he could be in Anaheim shortly," Reagins said.
And so, for the next week or two, while he's still around, try to enjoy it, in the moment, without seeing it as anything more global than a gifted young ballplayer taking a wobbly first step. The Seattle Mariners sent Alex Rodriguez back to the minors in 1995. He was 19. The Angels sent Jered Weaver back to the minors in 2006 even though he was 4-0 with a 1.36 ERA.
It's going to happen again, probably, no matter what Trout does, and everyone's going to be fine in the long run.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.