TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's a little too early to pencil in Mike Trout as a future Hall of Famer. But if he maximizes his potential, he has a good chance to surpass Tim Salmon as the greatest Angels outfielder named after a freshwater fish.
This spring Trout is learning a valuable lesson: Good fortune doesn't always smile on prospects -- even those who mesmerize scouts with their skills or hit the jackpot on the standard 20-80 player evaluation scale.
Washington's Bryce Harper, the East Coast half of the most glorified position player tandem since Jason Heyward and Mike Stanton in 2010 (if not Andruw Jones and Vladimir Guerrero in 1997), landed in the news this week when the Nationals sent him to Triple-A Syracuse, where he will attend the baseball equivalent of finishing school in hopes of a midseason callup.
Harper got off easily compared to Trout, who has been a medical adventure since his arrival in Arizona in February. First Trout contracted a viral infection that caused him to lose 10 pounds, and now he's recovering from a bout of shoulder tendinitis. Trout made his Cactus League debut against Kansas City on Tuesday, and he has since bounced back and forth between big league and minor league games as a DH. It might be another week until he's cleared to begin throwing.
Angels management views Trout's limited exposure as just a temporary setback. Combine Albert Pujols' well-publicized arrival in camp, Mark Trumbo's move to third base, Kendrys Morales' ongoing comeback from two ankle surgeries and C.J. Wilson's decision to share Mike Napoli's cell phone number with 117,000 Twitter followers, and the Halos have had lots of other stuff to keep them occupied this spring.
"It's unfortunate, the timing of Mike first getting sick and then coming back and getting nicked up. There's no doubt it's set him back as far as where he wants to be in the spring and where he wants to be on our depth chart right now,'' says Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "But big picture, even a month from now, two months from now, it'll be a non-issue."
Big picture, Trout certainly hopes so.
"Obviously, it's going to be frustration because I want to be out there,'' he says. "But I've just got to go with it, just get stronger and be back out there."
In reality, Trout's chances of cracking the Opening Day roster were remote from the start, largely because Scioscia has this policy about using only three outfielders at a time. Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells have a hold on the corner spots, and Peter Bourjos will provide energy, a terrific glove and even better speed in center field. That leaves a perplexed Bobby Abreu hitting .121 in the Cactus League and wondering where he fits in the equation, and Trout ticketed for the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees sometime between now and Opening Day.
Trout is 20 years old and has precisely 300 games of professional experience, so a little extra seasoning can't hurt. He already evokes a sense of child-like wonder among his teammates, who seem amazed that a kid who lasted until the 25th pick in the 2009 draft should be blessed with such extraordinary gifts. You can only wonder how much they'd gush over him if he hit better than .220 in 40 games in Anaheim last season.
Trout's athleticism and competitive drive are boundless. He can dunk a basketball with ease. He shoots in the 90s during occasional rounds of golf, but hits his drives into neighboring counties. He's good at pingpong and formidable at video games, and rolled a personal high of 286 in bowling a couple of years ago. He still laments the 300 game that got away.
"He's a freak athlete -- a one-in-a-million-athlete,'' says Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Tyler Skaggs, one of Trout's closest friends. "I can honestly say that I've never seen anything he's not good at.''
Throw all those tools into a blender, and it inspires baseball people and media members to heights of rapture. Detroit Tigers scout Eddie Bane, who drafted Trout in 2009 in his previous position as Angels scouting director, cringes over some of the hype surrounding Trout. On the other hand, he realizes that it's human nature to project great things for prospects this special.
It's unfortunate, the timing of Mike first getting sick and then coming back and getting nicked up. There's no doubt it's set him back as far as where he wants to be in the spring and where he wants to be on our depth chart right now.
”-- Angels manager Mike Scioscia
"I don't like hearing Mickey Mantle's name when people talk about Mike, but shoot, the kid looks like him,'' Bane says. "He's got '80' power, and he'd be more than an 80 runner if you could go that high. What's the ceiling for guys like that? I've heard people say, 'If he has a lousy career, he'll be Kevin McReynolds.' And Kevin McReynolds was a heck of a player.''
Before a recent Cactus League game, several Angels were asked to predict which young outfielder would win a match race -- Trout or Bourjos. It's the type of casual spring question that generates a more impassioned response than NCAA tournament bracketology.
Three Angels -- Hunter, Wells and pitcher Dan Haren -- hedged their bets. They voted for Bourjos going from first to third, home to third or legging out an inside-the-parker. But the consensus is that Trout would smoke Bourjos down the first-base line. The average time for a right-handed batter is 4.3 seconds. Trout generally covers the distance in the 3.85 to 3.95 range, with the occasional clunker of 4.0-plus at the high end. Considering that he's listed at 6-1, 210 pounds, his speed prompts older scouts to wax on about Mantle or Bo Jackson.
"In a 100-yard dash, it would be Peter. In the 40, it would probably be Trout,'' Wells says. "Once Peter gets going, it's a joy to watch. He can flat out fly. Trout is more explosive when he gets out of the box and down the line. If you blink too long, you're gonna miss it.''
Even in his limited exposure last year, Trout made a major impression. He hit two homers in a game against Seattle and made several fine catches once he got comfortable and asserted himself in center. But his most memorable moment came against Texas, when he hit a routine grounder to short and beat the throw from a stunned Elvis Andrus.
Official scorers beware: Trout is going to cause you some problems down the road.
Trout also averaged 3.96 pitches per at-bat, which would have placed him among the top 20 hitters in the American League and third on the Angels' roster behind Abreu and Howard Kendrick if that figure were extrapolated out over an entire season. For a kid weaned on 25-game high school seasons in New Jersey, he knows his way around a strike zone.
"He's not scared,'' Hunter says. "That's what I like -- the heart he has. We would see this guy battling, fouling balls off and getting to 3-2 counts. He'd have a 10-pitch at-bat and strike out and we were like, 'Wow, that's impressive.' We didn't look at it like, 'He struck out.' We were thinking, 'Wow, this dude battled.'''
Comparisons to Harper are inevitable. Trout wins points for his speed and glove in center, while Harper has superior power and a stronger arm. In November, they played together for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. Trout, running on fumes, hit .245, while Harper crushed the ball and ranked among the league leaders in several offensive categories. "He has some unique skills,'' Trout says.
Harper and Trout both come from solid family backgrounds, with parents who taught them the value of accountability and hard work. But while Harper seems at ease with the attention he's received, Trout is still feeling his way along. He bounds into a room with a smile and an outstretched hand-- a portrait in crew-cutted earnestness. But he talks in baseball clichés and is clearly more comfortable in the batter's box or roaming center field than answering questions about his impending greatness. In short, he talks like a kid who's less than three years removed from the Millville High senior prom.
At times last year, the Angels' veterans didn't know quite how to take him. That helps explain why pitcher Jered Weaver good-naturedly put Trout in his place by arranging to have the kid's cell phone number displayed on the Tempe Diablo Stadium scoreboard during a Cactus League game. Trout laughed off the incident, and says he received so few calls in response that he didn't even bother to change the number.
"He has a little bit of a swagger to him,'' Haren says. "He's confident in his ability. To tell you the truth, he came off a little cocky to me at first. Then you see how hard he works. He's not looking for any notoriety. He really impressed me with the way he handled himself in the big leagues and how respectful he was to others.''
In the overall scheme of things, the Angels can live with one bad month when the long-term payoff has a chance to be so profound. Mike Trout is plugging away through a lost spring in Arizona. But the smart money says he will be worth the wait.