Angels' Trout a diamond in the rough
Outfielder has become a star prospect after being passed over by many teams in 2009
It's hard to say exactly what scouts expected to see when they drove into southern New Jersey to visit with a young outfielder named Mike Trout who looked -- at least facially -- way too much like Mickey Mantle.
He was a Jersey boy who played basketball in the winter, but he'd started hitting a ton and running like the wind, and there was no denying the kid had the kind of baseball instincts you can't teach.
His dad, Jeff, had been a minor leaguer in the Twins farm system who'd topped out at Double-A, so the kid came from good stock and was well coached. But you never really know with players from the Northeast who put up the kind of numbers Trout did in high school.
Young prospects from places where winter is an actual season, and not just a designated period between November and March, tend to be much more raw and unpolished than their warm-weather peers.
And so the kid who has developed into one of the top prospects in all of baseball fell to the Los Angeles Angels with the 25th pick of the 2009 draft.
"Mike had all these tools, but people tend not to believe in those guys from the Northeast," said Eddie Bane, the Angels' director of scouting. "But our area scout, Greg Morhardt, had seen him a number of times and really liked him. I think him falling to us [late in the first round] was just a case of guys not giving Northeast kids enough credit."
In the 13 months since the Angels drafted him, the 18-year-old Trout has essentially chewed up and spit out the low Single-A Midwest League, hitting .362 with six home runs, 39 RBI and 45 stolen bases for the Class-A Cedar Rapids Kernels.
ESPN.com's Keith Law recently ranked him as the third-best prospect in baseball. He's been selected to play in tonight's Futures Game in Anaheim as part of All-Star weekend at Angel Stadium.
"I don't know if it's hit me yet, but it's starting to get to me," Trout said, shortly after arriving in Anaheim on Saturday afternoon. "I'll probably feel it tonight when I go to sleep. It's really an honor to play in this game. I can't wait to get out there."
After the game, he'll stick around in California, as the Angels have decided to promote him to their California League affiliate, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.
Initially there was some debate in the organization as to whether to slow Trout's progression and not risk overwhelming him as he adjusts to his first full season in the minors -- he doesn't turn 19 until next month -- but the Angels are convinced he can handle the quick promotion.
"One of the hard things in scouting is to realize when you have a kid that's gonna be ready at a young age," Bane said. "But the rare ones, they're good at any level.
"We have a plan for Mike, but Mike is really the one who dictates the plan. If he keeps dominating, he'll keep progressing through the system."
What makes Trout so impressive?
"Well, the other night the catcher on the other club threw him out trying to steal second," Bane said. "And I noticed that right after that, the next time he got up and stole second and third base. I liked that."
The great unknown
A little over a year ago Trout was in high school in New Jersey, wondering which team would draft him and whether he'd be drafted high enough to pass up on a scholarship to East Carolina.
He's not like one of these real gazelle center fielder types. This guy's a strong kid. He runs hard. He runs heavy, and he can fly. He drives the ball well to right field. He's got the makeup; he's focused. He's just a player with as much upside as any player that has put on the uniform.” -- Mike Scioscia
on Angels prospect Mike Trout
Scouts had been coming by to watch him at Millville High for a year or so, but it was hard to know just how high he'd be taken. He'd only switched from shortstop to outfield as a high school senior. He was from a small town where scouts rarely came by to find elite baseball talent.
The only thing anyone knew for certain is that all the scouts seemed to love the zucchini bread that neighbor Louisa Oliver used to bake. She'd bring some over to the house when the Trouts had company.
"They'd come over to the house and she'd make this great zucchini bread," Jeff Trout said. "After a while, they'd call ahead and say, 'Hey, we're coming to one of Mike's games, can you bring some of that zucchini bread?'"
It wasn't, of course, just the zucchini bread that kept scouts coming to watch Mike Trout play; he set the New Jersey high school record with 18 home runs his senior year.
Trout had a combination of size, speed and power rarely seen in a high school prospect.
And the more scouts learned about the kid's background, the more they liked.
"His parents, Jeff and Debbie, really did a nice job with him," Bane said. "Jeff's a former grunt minor leaguer. He knew all the hard work that goes into it and you could tell that had been ingrained in Mike, too."
As players, Jeff Trout and Mike Trout could not be more different. In his day, Jeff got by on guts and passion. He was a 5-foot-9 second baseman who played hard every day and tried to make the most of his abilities.
Mike is a burly 6-foot-2, 205-pound outfielder with speed, power and a plus arm whom Angels manager Mike Scioscia compares to Kirby Puckett.
"He's a little bit like a Kirby Puckett-type because he's a strong kid," Scioscia said. "He's not like one of these real gazelle center fielder types. This guy's a strong kid. He runs hard. He runs heavy, and he can fly. He drives the ball well to right field. He's got the makeup; he's focused. He's just a player with as much upside as any player that has put on the uniform.
"What he's showing in the early stages in the minor leagues is that he's not just a tool guy; he's a player. He's advanced. You never know exactly how tools are going to play on the field until guys get into player development. He's played at an extraordinary level. He'll keep being challenged, and hopefully, he'll reach his potential, which is really off the charts."
It was obvious to Jeff Trout early on that his son had the potential to be a special player. He loved the game from the first time he picked up a baseball, asking to play catch all the time and sleeping in his uniform after T-ball games.
After Jeff's playing career was over, he became a history teacher, baseball coach and football coach at Millville High.
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Mike came by practice every day, helped shag fly balls during batting practice and worked as the bat boy during games.
"He basically grew up in the locker room," Jeff said.
As Mike got older, it became obvious he'd been born with talent to match his natural drive and love for the game. It also became obvious he might have quite a bit more natural talent than his father.
"Oh yeah, Mike's a lot more talented that I was physically," Jeff said. "I was just a small guy who had to work for everything I got. I had to learn to live with that.
"He's bigger, faster, stronger; he has a better arm than I did. But he still works at it, too. He knows how to work at it, and it's never been a burdensome thing for him. I remember growing up, he'd always ask me to go hit off the tee or take short-toss, things not everyone his age would want to do. But he enjoyed all that."
He also seemed to listen to Jeff's advice and stories about life in the minor leagues.
In one of life's funny coincidences, the Angels assigned Mike to the Midwest League, the same league in which Jeff had played as a cub minor leaguer in 1983.
"There were no surprises for Mike. I went through the same stuff as a young guy that he was going to go through," Jeff said. "The travel hasn't changed that much since I played. You leave the ballpark at midnight, ride six or seven hours on a bus, get into the next town in the morning, sleep a little then get ready to play at night.
"I just remember so many nights of not sleeping and looking out the windows of the bus seeing rows of cornfields."
Though Mike Trout has made the transition from high school to the minor leagues look seamless, it hasn't been easy. Knowing what to expect has helped tremendously. So has renting a room from a local family and rooming with a teammate.
But when you're 18 and suddenly living away from home for the first time, there is an adjustment period.
"Just being away from home, being away from my family for half the year has been tough," Mike said. "It's tough, but you get used to it."
Now, just as he was getting comfortable in Cedar Rapids, it's time to move on.
There may have been questions about his readiness or ability coming out of high school, but those are gone now.
There's a spot on the fast track waiting for him as soon as he's ready to take it. The expectations on him are great. And no one needs zucchini bread as an enticement to come see him play anymore.
Instead of being overwhelmed, Trout prefers to keep his focus narrow.
"I haven't set a personal goal of when to make it to the majors," he said. "I just keep thinking about putting up good numbers, playing hard and winning games, and hopefully I'll keep moving up."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. ESPNLA's Mark Saxon contributed to this report.
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