Twentysomething slugger starring for Angels. Trout? No, Trumbo
The type of late-round pick who was likely to receive a large bonus under baseball's old draft rules was the sure-thing high school prospect who needed extra convincing to be pried away from a strong college commitment.
Such a hypothetical prospect might look like the following:
• A 6'4", 220-pound righthanded pitcher who can dial his fastball up to 94 mph.
• A California Southern Section division player of the year who starred at a powerhouse high school program.
• A pitching prospect rated similarly as Jered Weaver, Phil Hughes and Homer Bailey, all first-round picks in 2004.
• A pitcher of whom
• A University of Southern California recruit talented enough to receive a scholarship offer after his sophomore year.
Such was the background of Mark Trumbo, who later signed a record bonus for a non-draft-and-follow player drafted outside the 10th round -- even though he was being signed as a position player when, two months prior, he had been drafted as a pitcher.
That was his story long before he became an All-Star slugger for the Angels, one with a league-leading slugging percentage (.634), the same OPS (.995) as the Rangers' Josh Hamilton and "the easiest pop of any hitter in the league," according to his general manager, Jerry Dipoto. "He does not have to take his max swing to hit the ball a long way."
Nowadays, after spending April as a part-time player, Trumbo has hit his way into the Angels' everyday lineup as the clean-up hitter, never minding the fact that he's a vagabond with three gloves -- for first base, third base and the corner outfield positions -- who has started at least five games in five different places: left, right, designated hitter, third and first.
Before anyone talked about his bat, everyone in Orange County talked about his arm.
Trumbo was about eight years old when he began receiving private pitching lessons. Pitching was, he recalls, his focus throughout all of high school. "Almost exclusively, actually," he said.
He made the varsity baseball team at Villa Park as a freshman, and by his sophomore season had emerged as the team's top pitcher, starting his high school's championship win at Angel Stadium. He was a very good hitter, too, but it was his strong arm and polish on the mound that attracted scouts.
Trumbo was also diligent and goal-oriented, a dedication that impressed his new coach, Scott Luke, who led Villa Park during Trumbo's junior and senior seasons.
"From the day I met Mark, he was all business," said Luke, the brother of former big leaguer Matt Luke. "His goals were very clear. At 16 years old, that wasn't the norm."
Luke recalled having 12 Division I athletes on the team when Trumbo was a senior, so he'd stash him in a corner outfield spot when he wasn't pitching, so as not to disrupt the starting infield. Trumbo could hit, but his offense was an afterthought.
He was well known to professional scouts and especially the Angels. Trumbo grew up 10 minutes from Angel Stadium, attending some 10 to 20 games a year with his father, typically sitting down the rightfield line near his favorite player, Tim Salmon. Trumbo also played for the scout team organized by the Angels.
While everyone set their sights on Trumbo as a pitcher, one part-time Angels scout named Ben Hines, a former hitting coach for the Dodgers, called his scouting director during Trumbo's senior year and said, "I like Trumbo better as a hitter." The reaction, recalled then-scouting director Eddie Bane, was surprise and the question, "What are you talking about?"
Come draft day, Trumbo's strong ties to USC scared off major league clubs until the 18th round, when the Angels decided he was worth the high upside even though, as Bane, now a pro scout for the Tigers, admitted, "The odds of signing him were not good."
The more the Angels watched Trumbo play, the more they saw how good a hitter he was, but when they decided to meet his asking price, it was as a pitcher -- only there was a problem.
"I failed my physical," Trumbo said. "Just degenerative wear in my elbow. I guess they determined it to be 'Little League elbow,' as weird as it sounds. Just wear and tear to the cartilage. Just some durability issues.
"They said we're going to pass on the pitching aspect, but we're still interested in you as a hitter, which kind of caught me off guard."
An elbow issue wasn't a deal breaker the way a shoulder injury often is, but the finding "put us over the top on what position he would be," Bane said.
The Angels had him come in for three private workouts, the final one a pregame workout at Angel Stadium in front of the franchise's braintrust, during which he was "rocketing balls of the rocks at 18 years old," Bane said, referring to the rock formation beyond the centerfield fence.
The next day, Trumbo received his record $1.425 million signing bonus.
"If we signed him, he was an Angel," Bane said. "It didn't matter what we signed him as. If we signed him, we had him."
There were long days in the minors, when promotions seemed like they'd never come. Trumbo spent two full seasons with Class A Cedar Rapids, the first of which, he calls "the low point, by far, in my career." He batted .220, and at times like that he admits he "thought quite a bit" about pitching. "It was always an option," he said.
But he maintained his focus on hitting, and it paid off. He hit 32 home runs while splitting time between two levels in 2008. He led all of Triple A with 36 homers in 2010.
By 2011 Trumbo was the Angels' first baseman, hitting .254 with 29 homers while finishing as the runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year. He did, however, strike out 120 times compared with only 25 walks, contributing to just a .291 on-base percentage.
"My biggest thing last year as a rookie was that I felt that I needed to hit first," he said. "That came at the expense of my on-base percentage, I'd say. I think I was overly aggressive at times."
If he were too patient, he feared, pitchers would attack the zone against a hitter who didn't have a big track record and that he'd always be starting behind in the count.
Then, he suffered a stress fracture in his foot that not only ended his season prematurely but also interrupted his offseason workout plans. It wasn't the only development that threatened to derail his plans.
Trumbo's phone rang early on the day the Angels signed Albert Pujols. Among the callers was Luke, his high school coach, who recalled Trumbo's reaction to the news that he would be displaced from first base: "He said, 'I'm going to go grab another glove and work my butt off.'"
Because of his foot problem, however, Trumbo was only cleared for full workouts a few days before spring training began, so learning a new position (third base) while getting his swing back proved difficult.
He didn't quite take to third base like the organization had hoped and he spent most of April starting only every other day. That was enough, however, to show he belonged in the lineup more often than not, especially in the context of Los Angeles' 8-14 start.
After not starting eight of the Angels' first 18 games, Trumbo has started all but two games since April 26, during which time Los Angeles has gone 42-29, good for the second-best record in the majors.
While most of the national attention for the Angels' turnaround goes either to the man who displaced Trumbo at first base, Pujols, or to his same-initialed, fellow 20-something All-Star, Mike Trout, Trumbo's production as an everyday player has been equally important.
"Since he's been in the lineup consistently, he's just been banging," rightfielder Torii Hunter said. "I saw the talent. I just wanted him in there, just the power [being] in there, even if he didn't do well, just his threat of hitting a home run helps the lineup out."
Trumbo has now homered in six of his last eight games, and his 26 homers this season rank fourth in the AL. His OPS+ -- which adjusts OPS for league and ballpark -- is 173, second in the league only to Trout. He also already has 23 walks this season, nearly matching his total of 25 from all of last year.
"I'm just happy to get in there," Trumbo said. "The biggest thing for me is getting my at bats. Wherever I can find them defensively, I'm going to give it the best I have. I've transitioned to some positions better than others, but the effort's always going to be there.
"Ultimately, I just want a place to call home. Until that point, I just have to remain flexible."
That flexibility and professionalism has endeared him to the organization.
"What's impressed me most has been is his leadership qualities," Dipoto said. "Mark's an incredibly good guy, well respected in the clubhouse. He's a terrific worker and, I think, a wonderful teammate.
"Count that in addition to the 80 power," Dipoto continued, referring to scouting's 20-to-80 scale, "and he's been carrying a .320 batting average and a .360, .370 on-base [percentage] for most of the year, it's been fantastic to watch.
"We're a better team when Mark's on the field."
It hardly even matters where.