Why Mike Trout wants to win only with the Angels

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

ON AN UNCOMMONLY crisp afternoon in the middle of December, new Los Angeles Angels manager Ron Washington arrived in Bridgeton, New Jersey, for his first meeting with his most important player. Washington, hired a month earlier, drove up to Mike Trout's sprawling, custom-built mansion alongside his two new outfield coaches, Bo Porter and Eric Young Sr. They toured Trout's expansive basement workout room, put up some shots in the neighboring basketball court and settled into the den for a conversation that lasted close to four hours.

Trout, 32, was coming off a ninth consecutive playoff-less season and a third consecutive injury-shortened one. Less than a week earlier, Shohei Ohtani, who once provided Trout his best chance at the October runs that famously elude him, had left to join the crosstown Los Angeles Dodgers. But Trout, those who attended the meeting said, didn't spend much time lamenting. He pushed forward. He prodded the new staff about its vision, talked constantly about a desire to run the bases more freely and emphasized what he has consistently said publicly:

That he not only yearns to win, but that he wants to do so with -- and only with -- the Angels.

"This man has a lot invested in here," Porter said, "and it showed."

The speculation around Trout playing somewhere other than the Angels seems to intensify with every irrelevant month of September. It isn't just fans and pundits; it's players, coaches, scouts and executives who regularly wonder why the three-time MVP won't demand a trade from the organization that has thus far failed to capitalize on his prime. Trout, however, remains unwavering in his commitment. Some have taken it as an indication that winning isn't enough of a priority, a suggestion those who know him scoff at. Nobody, they say, is more competitive. Nobody is more hellbent on changing the narrative.

"He wants to stay," said Torii Hunter, the longtime major league outfielder who once played with Trout and is now an Angels special assistant. "For the people that say he should get traded -- it's not their decision. It's Trout's decision. For people to say that he doesn't want to win a championship -- that's 100% false. This guy's always had fire and a desire to win."

Since their initial meeting, Washington, Porter and Young have seen a man resolute on proving something, to both himself and those around him. In their first spring training together, they talked about him being first in drills and never shy about speaking out and consistently projecting joy. They noticed him setting a tone for everybody else.

"He's been the one leading the charge out here, every single day -- getting after it, having fun in the clubhouse, talking to the players, enjoying the work that we've been doing out here," Washington said from Tempe, Arizona, last month. "His enjoying the work is making everyone else enjoy the work."

A dozen years ago, Hunter mentored Trout during the historic rookie season that put him on a path to potentially -- before injuries slowed the trajectory -- become the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Hunter still sees elements of the ebullient 20-year-old who peppered him with questions about center field and ribbed him about his Dallas Cowboys. Now, though, he also sees more fight. More edge. More urgency to not only prove he's still elite, but that he can do what few believe he can: lead the Ohtani-less Angels into the playoffs.

In Hunter's words, "His 'why' is starting to become bigger."

IF THERE'S ONE thing almost universally known about Trout, it's that he's loyal. It comes from his parents, he said, "and how I was brought up." It's a loyalty shown through his family and his closest friends, many of whom date back to grade school, and extends to almost every aspect of his life, most notably, it seems, to his employer. "But it starts when you're a kid," Trout said.

Trout grew up idolizing Derek Jeter, the iconic New York Yankees shortstop who famously wore only one uniform. When Trout signed his record-breaking, $426.5 million extension in the spring of 2019, he said following in Jeter's footsteps was "something -- obviously not totally, but something in the back of my mind."

Those who know Trout have noted over the years that there's a certain comfort that comes with separating his home life in the Northeast from his baseball life in Southern California, adding that he seems disinterested in the hoopla that would come with playing for the Yankees or Philadelphia Phillies. Some bring up his perpetual optimism -- that he always shows up to spring training believing the Angels are capable of winning around him, no matter the circumstances. Others -- most recently current Angels closer Carlos Estévez -- say Trout will never forget that the Angels drafted him after 21 teams passed on him in the 2009 draft.

As Young said, "I think he has that feeling of responsibility."

Whatever the reason, Trout wants to stay. He promises. You don't have to believe him, but he'll keep saying it.

"It ultimately comes down to what I want, what Jess wants, as a family," said Trout, referencing his wife and 3-year-old son, who will have a baby brother in a few months. "The overall, outside perspective doesn't influence me one bit."

Trout was by far the greatest player in his sport from 2012 to 2019, an eight-year stretch in which he finished within the top two in MVP voting seven times and accumulated 70.5 FanGraphs wins above replacement (second on that list is Max Scherzer, who put up 48.5 fWAR). During that span, the Angels did not win a single postseason game, a reminder of the depth required to thrive in Major League Baseball and the team's mind-numbing inability to capitalize on such a clear head start.

Ohtani's emergence as a two-way phenomenon from 2021 to 2023 coincided with Trout playing in only 237 of a potential 486 games because of injuries to his right calf, back and left hand. Anthony Rendon, the third baseman signed to a hefty contract before the 2020 season to be the team's third star, played in only 30% of his games during that same stretch. The Angels never finished fewer than 17 games out of first place.

Their shortcomings, however, stretch much further. Trout's only playoff appearance came in 2014, a first-round sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals. His last winning season came the year after. And yet his loyalty remains.

"He signed here, he knew what he was getting into, and he wants to stay here," said former Angels ace Jered Weaver, Trout's teammate from 2011 to 2016. "Like he said, it would mean even more to win here after people are saying he should leave. 'We want to see you somewhere else.' Well, that's not what he wants. He wants to stay here; I think people should respect that. It's going to make it even better when they do start winning and win something to be an 'I told you so' type thing."

Trout pushed the front office to sign other stars this offseason, but instead the team scaled back payroll, from a franchise record of $212 million going into 2023 to $170 million in 2024. They lost Ohtani to a heavily deferred 10-year, $700 million contract that Angels owner Arte Moreno declined to match, largely, sources with knowledge of the situation said, because he's categorically against the concept of deferrals. Pursuits of Blake Snell and J.D. Martinez did not materialize. Their biggest offseason expenditure, $33 million, went to relief pitcher Robert Stephenson, who might have serious arm issues.

And yet Trout arrived in spring training and talked about how much more it would mean to win with the Angels. It was an unintended acknowledgment of the arduous task in front of him, but it seems to have been appreciated.

"Knowing that your best player wants to be here and earn it and win a championship, and that's been the message and the drive -- I just think that really helps everything," Angels left fielder Taylor Ward said. "It fires me up knowing that stuff."

Trout struck out against Ohtani and fell just short of a title during last year's World Baseball Classic, but Team USA's stirring run energized him, reminding him of what he'd been missing. On the bus ride back from the ballpark after the championship game, Trout sent a text message to his manager at the time, Phil Nevin. "I needed this," he wrote.

Since then, and probably before it, winning has been Trout's only driver.

"He's chasing dead people," Porter said. "When you look at Mike Trout's career -- if he was to retire today, he's a first-ballot Hall of Farmer. So, the accolades, I don't even think that's a driving force anymore. I think his No. 1 goal is to be the last team standing in the middle of the diamond at this point in his career. And he wants that to happen in an Angels uniform."

TROUT'S EXPRESSED DESIRE to stay isn't all that's preventing him from moving. He entered 2024 with seven years and nearly $250 million remaining on a contract that will pay him through his age-38 season. Couple that with recent injuries, and there are very few teams, if any, that would be willing to take on the money and provide promising young players in return, which the Angels would probably demand if they're parting with an icon. Trout's ability to block any trade only limits the market further.

Before any trade is even possible, rival evaluators say, Trout needs a healthy and productive season.

Trout wants to get back to the full version of himself.

Young noticed that during their first meeting four months ago, when he kept hearing one phrase over and over again from Trout -- that he wants to get back to "playing baseball." It means he wants to run again. More specifically, he wants to get back to stealing bases.

"He just wants to be set free," Young said. "And so I kept hearing that and hearing that, and I go to Wash and I say, 'Man, I hope you don't put no damn handcuffs or anything on him. Just let him be free.'"

There isn't just a single aspect of Trout's game that makes him great. It's all of it -- the lightning-fast hands, the 80-grade power, the astute strike-zone awareness, the propensity for highlight-reel catches and the elite, game-changing speed. The latter skill has not shown up as prominently in recent years. Trout stole 196 bases from 2012 to 2019, ninth most in the majors. From 2020 to 2023, amid a more conservative game plan, he amassed just six.

Trout spent a lot of time in spring training working with Porter on pitcher tendencies in hopes of creating more opportunities to run. He wants to steal at least 20 bases this year, a pursuit he doesn't believe to be in conflict with his desire to remain healthy.

"If you're out there holding back, sometimes it puts you in a worse position," Trout said. "I'm not saying that's what happened, but I feel like -- if I want to steal a base, I'm going to steal a base."

Amid the optimism for all that was new, one thing kept nagging at Trout dating back to when he first started seeing live pitching in the middle of February: His head kept moving in the batter's box. He couldn't keep it still, a big reason, he explained, for his struggles against fastballs last season. Finally, during a cage session from Miami on April 1, something clicked -- if he loads only halfway, rather than all the way back, he remains more still and his head stays locked in, putting him in a better position before unloading his swing. Trout has taken off ever since.

"When I feel like myself at the plate," Trout said, "no one can stop me."

Through the Angels' first 18 games, Trout is slashing .282/.363/.690 with an MLB-best eight home runs and, yep, three stolen bases, already his highest total in five years. Beyond the numbers, though, teammates have noticed a different level of intensity.

"He's just mad," Estévez said. "He couldn't stay healthy last year, and he's just mad at that."

ESPN's ranking of the sport's top 100 players at the start of the season listed Trout 19th, just below another center fielder, the 23-year-old Julio Rodriguez. Trout's standing in the game has never been in question like this.

"That's what happens when you get injured," Trout said. "If I was out there a full season, I think it'd be a different story. That's just the way I feel."

A conservative offseason means the Angels' best chance at the playoffs lies in-house. They're hoping that Trout and Rendon can stay healthy. That Washington, two weeks away from his 72nd birthday, still has some magic left in him. And that a promising young nucleus -- headlined by catcher Logan O'Hoppe, shortstop Zach Neto and starting pitcher Reid Detmers -- will emerge quickly enough to contend within a difficult American League West.

This year will help determine whether the Angels have a winning foundation.

Will it determine whether Trout wants to stay?

"I'm not putting it on one year -- this year, that year," he said. "I have six [years on my contract] after this. I told a lot of people this -- if something, I don't know what it is, but if I feel some type of way, you guys will know."

So you'll know when you know?

"Yeah. And it hasn't even crossed my mind yet."