Big Three poised to help one another thrive
Trout, supported by Pujols and Hamilton, will keep his teammates feeling young
TEMPE, Ariz. -- This is going to be a very different year for Mike Trout because of the expectations, because of the pressure, because of the spotlight. A historic rookie season has set a whole new bar for the prodigy, creating quite a burden for a 21-year-old who was in Triple-A 10 months ago and in high school not long before that.
But as you could see on Thursday afternoon, when he was flanked by Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols in a news conference setting, he has plenty of help.
"We're here to back each other up," Hamilton said. "And there's no expectations anybody's going to put on us that we don't already have on ourselves."
The expectations, though, are big.
Pujols is arguably the greatest hitter of his generation, Hamilton is among the most complete outfielders in the game and Trout is simply baseball's most exciting player. Between them, Hamilton and Pujols boast 14 trips to the All-Star Game, four MVP Awards, nine Silver Slugger Awards and five trips to the World Series. In Trout they have a budding superstar coming off a season in which he was unanimously voted the American League's Rookie of the Year and almost the youngest ever MVP.
Together -- and that's how it'll be for at least the next five years -- they're expected to score lots and lose little.
"It's awesome," Trout said, as he often does, in a conference room at the hotel that overlooks the Angels' Spring Training facility. "I remember last year sitting at the house, and all of a sudden, Albert's name popped up with the Angels, and it was a shock to me. I was like, 'Whoa, this is awesome.' And the same thing happened this year. The first thing I did is [text Hamilton] and congratulated him, and he texted me back and said, 'Get your legs loose.' I'm sure Albert would have said the same thing."
Two different roads
Pujols can still recall what he said the first time he met Hamilton, just after hearing he would soon be the first selection in the Draft: "Yeah, right."
It was 1999, during a pre-Draft workout at Tropicana Field for a Rays team that held the first pick. Hamilton was rail thin and hardly resembled the can't-miss prospect many identified him as out of North Carolina.
"Then he started taking BP," Pujols said, "and I was like, 'Are you serious?'"
Perhaps you can excuse Hamilton for not remembering that moment.
"I took a little different route than Albert did, forgot a few things along the way," Hamilton said, drawing laughter from an assembled media that knows his story well. "But we're here together now."
Pujols became a feel-good story, going from the 402nd pick to three-time National League MVP. Hamilton had an epic fall from grace, from No. 1 overall selection to a harrowing drug addiction that put him out of baseball for three full seasons.
Eventually, Hamilton rose from the ashes, starting five straight All-Star games (2008 to 2012) while with the Rangers.
And this offseason the Angels came out of nowhere to sign him to a five-year, $125 million contract.
"I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't appealing when [owner] Arte [Moreno] and the Angels approached me to think about the lineup, think about my place in the lineup with these guys," Hamilton said. "Even though it was against the rival Rangers, the biggest thing for my family and I was praying about it and going where the Lord leads us. And we're exactly where he led us."
Hamilton posted a .305/.363/.549 slash line the last five years, averaging 28 homers and 101 RBIs and being named the AL MVP in 2010. But there were also two alcohol-related relapses, an average of 32 games missed due to injuries and, freshest in everyone's mind, a lost second half that saw him bat .259 with 16 homers and 86 strikeouts in 69 games.
"You want to be as consistent as possible the whole year, but it's tough," he said. "That's why it's a lot harder to stay here."
Sharing the spotlight
That same perspective is engrained in Pujols, which is perhaps why his excitement about this group, while real, is tempered.
It was just last year -- in this same room, heading into this first official workout with his new team -- that Pujols addressed the hype surrounding the Angels because of his presence. But then, with his own head-scratching slump, the team fell flat in April and ultimately missed the playoffs for a third straight year.
"We look good on paper," Pujols said of the current group, "but we still need to go out there and perform and stay healthy."
These were Pujols' numbers last year: .285 batting average, .859 OPS, 30 homers.
But there are two very different ways to look at them.
You can notice that each of those numbers has dropped each of the last three years -- perhaps a sign that the 33-year-old continues to slip and an indication that the Angels will be in trouble toward the latter part of his 10-year, $240 million.
You can also consider what he did after May 15 -- .959 OPS, fifth best in the AL -- and think about what he can do going into a season with more familiarity and less spotlight.
"Obviously, it's a different league, and it's going to be a little different now that I know some of the guys I've faced, but I tried to go out there and do too much last year when I started," he said. "I think I can speak for everybody except for [Mark] Trumbo -- he was the only guy that was hitting in April. Everybody else, we were trying to do too much. We knew what type of team we had, we knew we were better than what our record was showing, and sometimes you start to press. That's human nature."
And while they pressed, the Angels started off 6-14. But Trout wasn't there. This year he will be, as a left fielder, and there will be one prevailing question.
Is it realistic to expect a season similar to 2012, when Trout became the first player in history -- at any age -- to combine a .320-plus batting average (.326) with at least 45 steals (49), 125 runs (129) and 30 homers?
Is it even fair?
"When I play baseball I just go out there and have fun," Trout said. "I'm not worried about anything else. I go out there and play my game, don't worry about what people think or what they're saying. When I get ready for the game, I don't really think about that stuff. I have one thing on the mind, and that's enjoy the ball game and do anything I can to help the team win. It's tougher some times, but I just go out there and play."
If Trout wants support in dealing with a year of massive expectations, he need only turn to the two guys he was hunched between on this day. Pujols and Hamilton can do a lot for Trout's growth if they're willing to take him under his wing.
But Trout is going to help them, too.
He'll keep them young.
"He motivates me just to come to the ballpark every day and watch him play the game," Pujols said. "He pushes me to that next level."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.