MLB

Draft heist of the century? How Mike Trout fell to the Angels

  • Senior baseball analyst for Insider
  • Was special asst. to Blue Jays GM
  • Wrote for Baseball Prospectus

Mike Trout might be the best player in MLB history, but he wasn’t even seen as the best player in his own draft class, or close to it. Ten years ago, he lasted until the Los Angeles Angels’ back-to-back picks at Nos. 24 and 25, meaning that 21 teams could have drafted Trout but passed (the Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks each picked twice before that).

That has led to the chronic question of why the industry as a whole didn’t realize Mike Trout was, in fact, Mike Trout when he was a 17-year-old high school senior. To find an answer, I went to the best sources possible: The scouts who saw him that spring, especially those with the Angels who were responsible for drafting and signing him. This is that story.

Note: All descriptions refer to the speakers’ roles at the time of the draft in 2009. All italicized text is from Keith Law.

More Trout coverage: What the back of Trout’s baseball card tells us | Untold Trout stories | A $430 million bargain | Passing Hall of Famers

‘That was the first time I saw Mike’

Greg Morhardt, Angels area scout for the Northeast: Trout started as an infielder. Don Kohler [then of the MLB Scouting Bureau] ran a workout; that was the first time I saw Mike. Mikey was 15 and playing shortstop and pitched, wore No. 1 that day, and ran like a 6.5-6.6 [in the 60-yard dash].

Mikey threw the ball across the infield, but his arm didn’t work right from shortstop. The kid could run, with a quick bat, but he was not a shortstop. … He didn’t have the easy-throwing arm action to play infield. When we got him to the East Coast Pro [a summer showcase run by scouts], we put him right in center.

Roy Hallenbeck, Millville (N.J.) High School varsity baseball coach: Mike made varsity all four years. His arc went pretty fast — as a freshman he was right away the fastest player I’d ever coached, but he was little then. We’re like wow, that jumped off the page first. At the time, being a varsity player at Millville HS was everything to Mike. I said to Jeff [Trout, Mike’s father]: “The way he runs, he’s a varsity player. He’s on any college roster in the country the way he runs!”

Sean Black was a senior at Lenape Mike’s freshman year and we faced him in the playoffs. Mike worked four walks versus Black. He had become our toughest at-bat. … His sophomore year, it was a playoff game at the end, he was pitching, couple of Yankees scouts and an MLB scout named Don Kohler saw him pitch. They filled out a report the next day and that’s when it started.

Black was a significant prospect. The Nationals took him in the second round in 2006; he didn’t sign, went to Seton Hall, and was drafted in the seventh round in 2009 by the Yankees, topping out in Double-A.

Mike Silvestri, Angels cross-checker: At the end of the day, without Greg, it doesn’t happen.

The first time I saw Michael, he was playing a lot of shortstop at East Coast, with his hat kind of pointing up and the high socks. What I remember most about that was him making a play on the other side of second base that was a routine 4-3. It wasn’t pretty or what a shortstop would look like, but I don’t know of anyone else who could have done that.

Jeff Malinoff, Angels cross-checker: Mo alerted everybody to him then, so our attention was drawn to him.

Morhardt: I had taken the job with the Angels, and [St. Louis area scout] Koby Perez said there’s this kid Trout, you might have to look at him, he can really run.

He was facing this big right-hander, Charlie Law, and Mikey got all three hits that his team got off Charlie. I said, ‘Hey, did his dad play minor league baseball? It might be Jeff’s kid.’ Jeff [Trout] and I played a couple of years together, even roomed together in spring training one year at the Rock in Melbourne [Florida].

Koby Perez, Cardinals area scout: I was headed to the University of Maryland and there was a kid, Charlie Law — tall and lanky — whom I had seen hit 84 mph the summer before. … So I’m headed through south Jersey. He’s not a priority at all, but he’s on my way so I’ll see the kid throw.

I was watching his game, versus Millville. He struck out 12 and gave up three hits, all three to one kid on the other team. That kid was 3-for-3 with three rockets, so I’m like, I’m gonna put this guy in and nobody knows about him. I asked a couple of fans, “What’s his deal?” and of course the people from Millville knew who he was. I said, “Is he a senior?” but they said, “No, he’s only a junior,” I’m like [damn]! I was thinking he’s a senior no one knows and I can give him [a $20,000 signing bonus] in the 30th round.

I went over to the parents and gave them the Cardinals paperwork to fill out. Back then, we used to give them the card to fill out and send everything back. They were humbled — the mother’s eyes watered up, and they couldn’t believe someone was interested in their son.

Morhardt: We got him to the workout at Yankee Stadium, but we had to hit in the cages because it rained. Mike came in with a 32-inch bat. Marcus Stroman and Steven Matz were on that team too and they were all hitting.

My son was a few years younger and was at the workout. I said, “Justin, who’s the guaranteed big leaguer in there?” And he said, “Trout.” I told him, “This is an easy one,” and I technically hadn’t really seen him out running yet.

We coached him on that East Coast Pro team, then we went to California to the Area Code Games. He played in everything — he was even at the USA trials — it’s not like he snuck up on somebody. [He didn’t make the 18U National team that summer.]

Damon Oppenheimer, Yankees scouting director: It all started at Area Codes. He was on the Yankee AC team out in Long Beach, and Matty Hyde [their area scout for the Northeast] was the manager. He told us, make sure you’re paying attention. All of a sudden this guy runs 4 [seconds] flat, he hits a ball really hard, he hits another ball really hard, plus the ease about how he does stuff in the [outfield]. Hey, this guy’s pretty good!

Mike Trout, ballplayer, on the first time he realized scouts were interested: Probably at Area Codes, then Perfect Game in Jupiter [Florida]. That’s when it started getting surreal. I started getting letters in the mail from colleges, and it seemed like right after that, pro teams started sending their cards, letting me know there could be a chance they could be scouting me. Getting out of New Jersey helped a lot.

Oppenheimer: I said we got a team in Jupiter, the Texas Yankees, let’s get him on the team. Trout came up into the stands and said, “I really appreciate it. I’m going to stay with my group. I owe it to my guys to play with them in this event.” That showed me a lot of class and a lot of balls to say that: It’s not that I don’t want to play for the Yankees, but I owe it to this group. The way he talked to me, it was like a man-to-man talk, and I really felt good about the makeup.

‘The Northeast stigma’

Silvestri: [At the Perfect Game event in Jupiter, October 2008] I knew he was playing for the Tri-City Arsenal, so I said, “Guys, I’m gonna do my own thing,” and I stood on the golf cart down the right-field line, as far from everyone as possible, to watch some at-bats. I knew we wouldn’t get any for a while because of the weather [in the Northeast]. I came out of there and to me it was a no-brainer, but the question was, “Are we going to get him there at Pick 25?”

I felt like we had a better-than-average chance. You had the left-handed hitter from Jersey who flopped, I wasn’t in on that, but you had that stigma, plus the white right-handed-hitting outfielder from the Northeast stigma, you fit everything people don’t want to spend money on. I thought we had a shot.

Silvestri is referring to Billy Rowell, the ninth overall pick in 2006, taken by the Baltimore Orioles out of Pennsauken, New Jersey, just one spot ahead of where the San Francisco Giants selected Tim Lincecum.

Rowell hit very well in his first pro summer, but he didn’t hit well anywhere in full-season ball and the strikeouts started to mount, leading to questions about whether scouts had overrated his hitting prowess because they saw him only against bad competition in southern New Jersey. Rowell last played in 2011. In 2012, he was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a drug of abuse, and the Orioles released him that winter.

Eddie Bane, Angels scouting director: Teams were scared because of Rowell, but it was still just an excuse. What did Rowell do compared to Mike!? But they used it, it was there, “I’m not going in to waste three days on this guy after Rowell.”

Morhardt: I wasn’t scouting in 2006, but I saw Rowell in A-ball the next year, and I thought, “This is an NP [non-prospect], a big guy, a big swing, who can’t play.” You have to have the ingredients to cultivate. If anyone says, “If he figures it out some day,” don’t pick the player! Give me reasons why you think he’s going to hit. Rowell was never going to hit velocity. Meanwhile, Trout ran 3.85 to first base, he was a 6.4 runner, he was powerful, he played every sport, had a compact swing, had great makeup. … You’re going to compare that guy to Rowell?

Mike Alberts, Nationals area scout for the Northeast: People would ask, “What high school position players come out of the Northeast?” Like, when you’ve taken a kid from college, people ask who has come out of that college? The next year there was another high school hitter from New Jersey, Carl Thomore, who had almost lost his leg. He was husky, he had a buzzcut, he talked like Trout. So scouts said, “I’m not going to miss the next Mike Trout.”

The Colorado Rockies took Thomore in the second round in 2010; he hit .213/.314/.296 across four seasons, three in short-season ball, before he was released by his second team, the Chicago White Sox.

‘It was a rough weather spring’

Morhardt: Mike did have 30 games because he played a bunch of scrimmages. It’s not like he was playing in Maine. Coach Hallenbeck allowed Mike to take BP with wood and aluminum and get an extra 25 swings before everyone else.

Trout: Coach did a good job. He made it work. He wanted to get the scouts a chance to see me hit BP. You can’t do that when you’re hitting BP with the team — you’re taking five swings and getting out of there. He made it a fluid schedule for me.

Alberts: The first thing I noticed was how far down Vineland [New Jersey] was, considering I’m from Massachusetts. Newark is in New Jersey, which I could get to in [3 hours, 15 minutes] sometimes. So I’m driving and driving and I feel like I’m about to hit North Carolina. I drove six hours to see Trout in my area, which put me in a strange mood. Then you get down there, it’s not a great field, really beat up, and it’s not great competition. That sets the table for you as an evaluator — it’s human nature.

Silvestri: It was a rough weather spring in the Northeast. I don’t think I got into see him until May.

Oppenheimer: He was tough to see, but when we were there — myself, Donnie, Brian Barber — he was good. He just didn’t have bad days: He ran exceptionally, hit balls hard, ran sub-4 flats. The BPs were good when he wasn’t trying to switch-hit. He was fooling around hitting left-handed, but right-handed it was consistent, a short swing, then bam!

‘He said names I shuddered to hear, like Mickey Mantle’

Bane: I knew of Trout, but the first time I saw him was at a high school game up in Millville. Greg had done his job, but he said names I shuddered to hear, like Mickey Mantle.

Alberts: He was strong, but nobody would describe him as fluid. He wasn’t [Ken] Griffey Jr. He wasn’t crude, but his stance was crude and there was some muscle in his swing. Mo [Greg Morhardt] would say, “Dad did it the exact same way. Dad could hit.” There was length in the swing.

As far as passing the eye test, he didn’t jump off the page. He was 6-foot-1, 175 [pounds], then you’d watch him play, and depending on what type of day … I remember getting a run time on him late in the season in Atlantic City. It was a wet day, I’ll never forget this, the dirt was like beach sand, and I got him 3.9 down the line on a ball he pulled to short. We tend to make excuses for guys, but he ran 3.9 in the worst possible conditions. [For a right-handed hitter, a run time of 3.9 seconds is an 80 out of 80 speed grade.]

Silvestri: I stayed in the Philly Renaissance, Tommy Allison [then the Diamondbacks’ scouting director] and I had dinner that night before. I didn’t think they were in on Trout, but when I went to the ballpark the next day, there were a lot of people there.

Greg was nervous. He came running up to me, but I said, “I’m going to say who our competition is, it’s the Yankees but they’re behind us, I don’t know about Boston and they like [Rey] Fuentes too, but Ray [Fagnant, Boston’s area scout for the Northeast] liked him.” The one thing I didn’t know about was Oakland.

Billy Beane, Oakland Athletics president: Our guys, to say the least, really liked him. Farhan [Zaidi] and I — further proving the Peter Principle — flew out together to go watch him, normally not a trip I would make, to see a high school outfielder from a small town across the country. Trout went like 0-for-5, popped out, so we didn’t even get to see him run.

Alberts: I had a 55 on him, an above-average major league regular and frequent All-Star. So I nailed him! But I may have been light. (Laughing.)

He was throwing 87 off the mound, so his arm wasn’t going to keep him out of center field. Saying you didn’t like him because of his arm was a cop-out. I liked the fact that he was physical. He reminded me of a running back.

Malinoff: During the year, when I would go to see him, he didn’t get much to hit. He hit one home run, but had walked three times previous. You just saw so much in him, I’ve always loved that kind of guy where you could dream and use your imagination and put the dots together.

Silvestri: We were still using Donnie’s old system for grading players. [Donnie Rowland preceded Eddie Bane as the Angels’ scouting director; in 2009 he was scouting for the Yankees. He was there the day I saw Trout that spring.] The numbers it was spitting out, I was embarrassed. It spit out a 75 [on the 20-80 scale, meaning a potential Hall of Famer]. I took it down to a 68 because I’d never thrown a 70 on someone before! So I felt pretty good coming out of that day, I sent Eddie in immediately.

Bane: I was there with Jeff Malinoff, and after five innings I said, “Let’s go, I’ve seen enough.” We got in the car and I said, “If that guy’s there I’m gonna take him.” I’d just seen Donavan Tate, there was no comparison.

Tate was the only kid on his high school team who didn’t homer in BP! Trout ran better than everybody else and put everything he had into his fielding and throwing.

Tate, from Cartersville, Georgia, went third overall to the Padres, but never got out of A-ball.

Silvestri: Eddie sees him and called me, “I’m going to dinner, I’ll call you after.” He calls me after dinner with the family, said, “I’m in.” He’d never seen him before.

Justin Hollander, Angels director of baseball operations: We would send voicemails to all-office. Eddie would always call it the Great 48, and he’d let the group know if he saw something unusual during a game.

After he saw Trout he said, “I saw him go 0-for-4 with two popups, he did absolutely nothing, I love him, we’re taking him.”

‘No, I’m not letting anyone screw up Trout!’

Hollander: The whole draft year was really fun, since we had five of the top 48 picks. Greg pulled me aside in the bathroom of the Marriott in our January meetings to say how much he loved Trout.

Morhardt: Jeff [Trout] called me, said [A’s assistant GM] Dave Forst saw him hit three home runs in a weekend, and Jeff said, “Well, he wants [Mike] to come to Oakland for a workout.”

I’m thinking if you spend the whole day with Mikey you’re gonna take him and Billy’s a smart guy. I’m thinking I’ve got to stop this, I said, “Trouter, we have a workout the same day,” which we didn’t. But I would have told Eddie we have to have a workout that day. Doesn’t he have homework that day or something?

If Billy had gotten him there, it would have been over. You get Mike in your ballpark, and I don’t know where he would have been hitting balls.

Beane: Since then, Trout went on his own personal iron fleet in the Greyjoy. He’s the fourth Greyjoy, just destroying us, with a vengeance worse than Euron’s to remind the A’s they should have taken him.

[The A’s took USC shortstop Grant Green instead of Trout with the No. 13 overall pick.]

Alberts: I remember Mo asking cross-checkers, “Would you take Trout or [Dustin] Ackley?” and they’d laugh at him. But I think teams didn’t like to take the guy ranked 25th in the country third or fourth in the draft.

Bane: There were teams that didn’t even cross-check him.

Silvestri: We get to Anaheim, Greg’s a nervous Nellie the whole time. Greg likes nobody as a scout! He is so good with hitters, one of the best hitting guys I’ve ever heard talk. He’s really good with that.

I have back surgery scheduled for that spring. We were going to see Evan Chambers [another draft prospect] and Eddie sees me getting out of the car. He says, “Schedule your surgery now.” I said, “No, I’m not letting anyone screw up Trout!”

‘The price has changed’

Bane: I brag about my [internal preference] list, but I still had [Stephen] Strasburg first, so I was wrong too (laughing).

Oppenheimer: Legitimately, he was the second guy on our board. It was Strasburg, then him, then a HS pitcher, then Ackley. Eddie did tell me before the draft we weren’t getting him, then I think he really toyed with me and didn’t take him with the first pick.

Bane: I even told him before the draft: If you’re thinking about some kid from Jersey, you can just forget that.

Morhardt: Eddie didn’t tell anyone, didn’t tell me, didn’t tell Malinoff, he just did his thing. At the end of the day the scouting director’s neck is on the line, so he’s the one who has to make the final decision. He did it. Eddie had to be persuaded that, in his heart, he thought “this is the guy.” He deserves a lot of credit for doing that.

We met with Jeff, Debbie and Mike the week before. Our slot was like $1.2 million, and we were a team that stayed pretty much to slot. Tony Reagins [the Angels’ GM at the time] said we had to stay within slot, so if they don’t want the slot, we’ll move on to the next guy. About five hours before the draft, Eddie calls and said that some teams that had more money said they’d give Trout a million [dollars] more than that.

Bane: [Agent Craig] Landis called, said the price has changed.

Morhardt: Eddie says, “I’m hearing from the agent that it’s not going to be slot, it’s going to be more than that.” I said, “I think we’re fine,” so I call up Trouter [Mike’s father] and there’s dead silence on the other end.

He said, “Mo, we were offered a million more.” I said, “Trouter, I’m gonna take him, in six years he’ll be making $20 million-plus a year, I gotta go.” I called up Eddie and he said, “What did he say?” and I said, “He’s all set to go!” What am I gonna do? I’m gonna let the best player go?

Silvestri: Two days before the draft, we get called into Eddie’s room, which is a mess. I sit in his room and go, “What’s up?” He says, “He’s got an agent now, they want $3.5 million!” I said, “That’s not him, that’s the team behind us telling him to do that.” We’ve all played that game in the draft. He goes, “You’re OK with that assessment?” I said, “I’m willing to bet anything you want on it.”

Eddie tells me [in the draft room] that tomorrow [Angels manager Mike] Scioscia and Abe Flores and Kenny Forsch and Tony Reagins are all coming in, so I’d have to give a speech about Trout and why we should take him. Easiest thing I’ve ever done.

Hollander: I turned to Mike in a break after we’d been talking about Trout, I said, “Who is it?” He said, “I don’t want to say because people would laugh at me, but it’s Rickey Henderson … and I might be light.”

Silvestri: I don’t have a comp! I said he’s Mickey Mantle but not a switch-hitter, Rickey Henderson but right-handed. He cupped the bat in his top hand. I never saw that kind of athlete with that explosion and shortness to the ball before. He played running back, played center in basketball. Tony said, “You just threw out [the names of] two Hall of Famers,” and I said, “He might be better.”

‘We were taking him with one of those two picks’

Malinoff: We had those two picks at the top when we knew that we had a chance to get both of them [Trout and Randal Grichuk]. Since Mike was the tougher sign at the time, it was a strategic deal to take Mike second and get him closer to the [bonus] number that we had, which was a real hard and fast one. The consensus in the room was, I think, by comparing apples to apples, you’d pick Trout first.

Hollander: Trout was eighth on our overall board, but with the understanding we were taking him with one of those two picks.

The Angels had two picks in the first round, 24th overall (from the New York Mets for free agent Francisco Rodriguez) and 25th overall (from the New York Yankees for free agent Mark Teixeira), and then picked again at 40, 42, 48 and 80. It turned into an epic haul of talent: They took Randal Grichuk and Mike Trout at 24 and 25, Tyler Skaggs at 40, Garrett Richards at 42 and Patrick Corbin at 80. The only pick of the top five to fail to make the majors at all was lefty Tyler Kehrer, from the University of Eastern Illinois, a hard thrower who had control problems in college and had them in pro ball, topping out in high-A in 2012, his last year in pro ball.

Hollander: Everyone always feels like they killed it in the draft, but we had Trout, Richards, Grichuk and Skaggs all in our top 20 on our board. When you’re through the 42nd pick and you have four of our top 20, everybody was just over the moon. I thought, I can’t believe this is happening to us.

‘Mikey’s driving us nuts, we’re just gonna take the money.’

Morhardt: After the draft, of course, the agent wants to get more money. Tony [Reagins] calls me up and says, “Mo, this is gonna be tough. Let me take it from here.” I go, “Tony, first of all, the Trouts’ word is good. This is a confusing time, but you can trust them. Mikey’s gonna sign. Give him whatever you want, but I would give him slot because I think they’re gonna take it and go out. Mike’s worth $10 million. You just got the biggest freak on the planet” — Tony never saw him — “wait ’til you get a load of him, you just got the biggest steal in the draft.”

I get a call from Jeff [Trout] the next day and he leaves a message on my home answering machine, he said, “Mo, Mikey’s driving us nuts, we’re just gonna take the money. He wants to play. I called Tony at 9 a.m. Pacific to say it’s done, he’s taking the money.”

Bane: Two weeks after the draft Jeff called and said, “Would you just get him out of the house? Let’s go.”

Hollander: Jeff called and said, “You have to get this kid out of the house and onto a baseball field, he just wants to sign.” Kathy Mair [the Angels’ baseball administration coordinator] and I took him out to lunch, then he worked out for us. He was hitting balls out to right-center in the old configuration of Angel Stadium.

Silvestri: My only job in the spring was to make sure we didn’t screw this up. I still tell our guys today, find the guy who’s different. Trout’s power/speed combo — I was heaviest on the power, saying he had 25 homer power, I think most people didn’t think that. I was wrong, obviously, it’s better than that, but he put a bunch of balls in the rocks in right-center field in his BP session after he signed, and then he just bolted through the system.

Trout: You want to spend time with your family as much as you can. Your life’s going to change once you head to Arizona, so I spent a couple of weeks with family and friends, but then I wanted to get out there and just get started. That half a year, I could have waited it out and went to rookie ball [in 2010] instead.

‘This is the best thing I’ve ever seen’

Trout was one of the youngest players in the Arizona League, but hit .360/.418/.506, finishing second in the league in average, seventh in OBP and 14th in slugging, while stealing 13 bases in 15 attempts, earning a September bump up to full-season A-ball.

Silvestri: One of our guys went to see our Arizona League club, then he put Greg and I on a conference call and said this is the best thing I’ve ever seen, he’s going to move quickly through our system, his arm was the only tool not average.

Hollander: Trout’s setup and swing were very different back then. The thing we didn’t anticipate was that his feel in the box and his recognition skills were very apparent from Day 1 in Arizona, as compared to what he saw in [New Jersey]. His natural feel for understanding the zone, for discipline, for making adjustments, were off-the-charts good, and that was something we never talked about.

Silvestri: The other things that are so hard to figure out, the makeup stuff, we knew all that because of Greg.

Mohrhardt: When you’re looking at personalities to choose, makeup isn’t whether the guy is nice to me, but how does he react to general situations, or what does it take for a guy to throw a towel in. He’s not easily discouraged. We had another player a few years after, who went very high in the draft, who was a terrific kid. But that part of the game, because he was going to strike out a lot, his personality was going to make it tough for the combination of a lot of failure and taking it too personal. It was a tough combination.

Guys like Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro [whom Morhardt played with in summer ball in college] had cleaner and more beautiful swings, but Mikey did more things and he did it with strength and with speed. The strength factor and the speed/power were there. Mike didn’t take a backseat to anybody in regards to a competitive mind. His mind was sharp and quick, he understood timing and angles of things, but he was in a football body. I think it threw people off a little bit. We like to project the tall lean guys who’ll grow into Darryl Strawberry.

Malinoff: He was a pretty good player, better than we all thought. People saw bits of it, but nobody other than, again, Mo and Eddie really thought that he would put absolutely everything together, and develop like he has. His aptitude is so great, like in his ability to master the strike zone. He just came in with maturity well beyond his years. Probably few people have that kind of outlook, charisma and joyfulness about their approach to the game. That has a lot to do with it. Everybody was sure that he was our guy, but only Greg saw real glitter and gold.

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