Los Angeles Angels rookie outfielder Mike Trout is the American League version of Bryce Harper, so how the heck did he fall to the 25th pick of the 2009 draft?
“You got me,” says Trout’s father, Jeff.
Call it anti-East Coast bias. Anti-New Jersey bias. Maybe even anti-Billy Rowell bias.
There is more to the story, much more, but what the heck. Let’s start by blaming Jersey.
Rowell probably should be left out of this, but like Trout, he hails from South Jersey, an area that doesn’t produce many major leaguers.
The Baltimore Orioles drafted Rowell, a corner infielder, with the ninth pick of the ’06 draft. And Rowell, in the words of former Angels scouting director Eddie Bane, the man who selected Trout, “completely went in the tank,” became a bust.
Now, any scout could see that Trout wasn’t Rowell. Trout could run. Trout could hit. And Trout had power. But if Rowell flopped . . .
Sounds crazy. But baseball people sometimes engage in groupthink, casting aspersions on an entire region due to the failings of one player.
Bane, who is now a major-league scout with the Tigers, says a number of teams simply could not believe that a kid as good as Trout could be from Jersey.
Trout, coming out of Millville H.S., wasn’t exactly an unknown — Jeff Trout recalls the Athletics’ Billy Beane, Giants’ Brian Sabean and high-ranking officials from virtually every other team coming to see his son.
Still, because kids in the northeast don’t play as much baseball as kids in Florida, California and other states in warmer climates, they usually are considered greater risks.
“Mike did the Area Code Games, did a few of the big tryouts and showcases, but he came on the scene late,” Jeff Trout says.
“He wasn’t just a baseball guy. He played football and basketball. A guy like Bryce Harper, people knew about him when he was 10.”
Greg Morhardt had no problem with any of that.
Morhardt, the Angels’ area scout who signed Trout, operated under a basic premise.
“The Northern player, they go a little bit on the back-burner,” Morhardt says. “That’s where you can steal a kid.”
Especially when, as a former minor-league teammate of Jeff Trout, you’re operating with inside information.
From 1984 to ’86, Morhardt and Jeff Trout played together with the Twins’ former Double A affiliate in Orlando, Fla.
Jeff, the Twins’ fifth-round pick in ’83, recalls himself as “a grinder, a 5-foot-8, 160-pound, switch-hitting second baseman who earned everything I got.”
By his own admission, Jeff wasn’t much of a defender. But in four minor-league seasons, he had a .303 batting average and .808 OPS.
“He used to hold the bat like a gorilla,” recalls Morhardt, who was a first baseman/outfielder. “His hands weren’t pure, like an Adrian Gonzalez-type guy. It was like he was Bam-Bam. He didn’t always look the prettiest. But he always hit.”
Mike holds the bat like his father did, Morhardt says — wrist curled in toward his body, sort of wrapped around the bat.
A style that appears to limit flexibility. A style that turned off some scouts.
“I personally had no issues with it,” says Morhardt, who is now a national crosschecker with the Angels. “I saw the father hold the bat very similar. And it didn’t stop the father from hitting.”
Others, however, questioned whether Mike, a right-handed hitter, could hit the ball to the opposite field holding the bat way he did.
Just to make sure, Morhardt one day asked Mike to hit the ball down the right-field line. Mike did it on his next swing, and Morhardt never said another word.
Mike, in Morhardt’s view, was a scout’s dream.
“He was much faster than everyone in the country. He was much stronger than everyone in the country. He had the timing, the instincts,” Morhardt recalls.
“He was stronger than any 17-year-old I’d ever seen — (Barry) Bonds, Oddibe (McDowell), all of them. I’d never seen a 17-year-old who was that fast and that strong.”
During Mike’s junior year, Morhardt says he told Ric Wilson, a national cross-checker who later replaced Bane as the Angels’ scouting director, “We’ve got to get Trout.”
“It was not a hard one,” Morhardt says. “It was about as easy as you can get.”
The Angels in ‘09 forfeited their first-round pick, No. 32 overall, after signing free-agent reliever Brian Fuentes. But they gained back-to-back first-rounders, Nos. 24 and 25, for losing free-agent reliever Francisco Rodriguez and first baseman Mark Teixeira.
San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg was No. 1 on virtually every team’s draft board.
The Angels had Trout second. So did the Yankees.
The signing of Teixeira had cost the Yankees the 25th pick. But they were selecting at No. 29 as compensation for failing to sign their 2008 first-rounder, pitcher Gerrit Cole — yes, the same Gerrit Cole who went to the Pirates with the No. 1 overall selection last year.
In any case, Bane wasn’t worried about the Yankees grabbing Trout — they were picking behind him. No, Bane was worried about all those teams ahead of the Angels. The Nationals and Diamondbacks both would select twice before the Angels made their first pick.
Morhardt, Wilson and the Angels’ East Coast supervisor, Mike Silvestri, all liked Trout. In May, the month before the draft, Bane flew east to see Trout play. Trout did not perform well, hit a couple of popups. But running out one of the popups, he had almost reached third base.
That night, Bane went to dinner with Mike, his older brother Tyler and his parents Jeff and Debbie at Ye Olde Centerton Inn in Pittsgrove, N.J. — a restaurant that, according to Jeff, is “in the middle of a bunch of farms.”
The Trouts impressed Bane.
“They busted each other’s chops, as they called it,” Bane says. “But you could tell there was a ton of respect in the family. Mike knew you could kid with your parents. But they were your parents.”
Still, Bane felt he had wasted a trip, wasted two days at a time when he could have been in a warm-weather state checking out multiple players.
“After seeing Mike,” Bane says, “I was pretty sure he was not going to be there for us.”
The Yankees weren’t confident of landing Trout, either. But, they, too, felt they had special insight into the player.
Trout had participated for the Reds and Yankees in the 2008 Area Code Games, a showcase of the best high-school players in the country. He also had hit four or five home runs in a private workout at Yankee Stadium.
Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ scouting director, thought that maybe, just maybe, the kid from South Jersey would end up in the Bronx.
“I was trying like hell to play it down. He wasn’t a huge name,” Oppenheimer recalls. “I was like, ‘You know what?’ He’s got a chance to get to us.”
Jeff Trout thought so, too.
“I knew if the Angels didn’t get him, the Yankees probably would,” he says.
Oppenheimer and Bane, who are friendly rivals, spoke after the draft and learned that they had both had rated Trout No. 2 behind Strasburg.
Bane, nearly three years later, chuckles at what he told Oppenheimer.
“You had no chance.”
Jeff Trout, based on his conversations with different clubs, thought the Mariners might grab Mike at No. 2 — Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik says Trout was in the mix, but the M’s took Dustin Ackley, a first baseman/outfielder from the University of North Carolina.
Jeff also thought the Diamondbacks might take Mike — they had scouted him heavily, and had the Nos. 16 and 17 picks. But the D-Backs chose Bobby Borchering, a high-school third baseman from Florida, and A.J. Pollock, an outfielder from Notre Dame.
The Athletics, picking at No. 13, were another team that strongly considered Trout. But the A’s selected Grant Green, a shortstop from USC whom they felt could fill a need quickly — and ended up an outfielder, beaten to the majors by Trout.
On and on it went.
A number of fine talents went ahead of Trout — Braves lefty Mike Minor, Nationals closer Drew Storen, Cardinals Triple A righty Shelby Miller. So did a few players who, at least to this point, are considered busts — the Padres took outfielder Donovan Tate at No. 3, the Orioles took right-hander Matt Hobgood at No. 5.
Trout and his parents watched the whole thing unfold at the MLB Network in Secaucus, N.J.
It was the first time the network had televised the draft. Trout was the only player to attend.
“I was really hesitant about that,” Jeff Trout says. “I know how those things go. I said, ‘Mike, you can get up there and drop to the second or third round and we’ll look like fools.’”
“My wife said, ‘Nah, let’s go.’ As always, my wife talks us into smart decisions.”
The network is only a two-hour drive away from the family’s home, and Mike, then 17, sided with his mom.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, being there, meeting all of the Hall of Famers,” Mike says.
The Angels used the first of their back-to-back picks on another high-school outfielder, Randal Grichuk, who is still in A ball.
Trout came next.
And three selections later, the Yankees chose Slade Heathcott, a high-school outfielder from Texarkana, Texas.
Heathcott, who has had multiple shoulder injuries and surgeries, is still in A ball.
Trout, now 20, is leading off for the Angels, not at all bitter that so many players were taken ahead of him.
“I’m happy I got selected,” Trout says. “I can never take that for granted and say, ‘I should have been a top 10 pick.’ I’m just happy I got a chance to play pro ball.”