Mike Trout is the catch of the day when it comes to center field prospects. After posting a gaudy .338/.422/.508 slash line in the minors, Trout made his big league debut this past season. Though his performance wasn’t all that impressive, Trout still has one of the highest ceilings of any prospect in baseball. But even though Trout no longer needs to prove himself in the minors, he may find himself back there again this season. That’s because the Los Angeles Angels currently have five potential starters in the outfield for just three spots. Can Trout steal away a starting job, or will he be left swimming upstream all season?
In order to win a starting job, Trout will have to beat out some well-established candidates.
Looking at the table, we can almost immediately eliminate Bobby Abreu from the conversation. At 38, he’s not going to get better, and he hasn’t been a good fielder since 2003. Considering the Angels were hesitant to put Abreu in the outfield last season, it’s unlikely they would move him back out there next season. While his walk rate was still solid, Abreu’s bat isn’t going to cover for his poor defense any longer.
Peter Bourjos might have the least amount of name recognition on the list, but he was clearly the Angels’ best option in the outfield this past season. His .338 BABIP makes him a candidate for some offensive regression, but his defense is superb in center field. Other than Trout, Bourjos is the only player on the list that can play center effectively. Based on his defense and performance last season, Bourjos should be a guaranteed starter heading into 2012.
Torii Hunter has clearly been on the decline the past couple of seasons, but he’s still a slightly above-average corner outfielder. For a player with such a strong defensive reputation in center, Hunter posted a negative UZR in right field last season. He’s not a great defensive option anymore, but his bat will play in a corner spot.
Vernon Wells’ bat, on the other hand, is no longer suited for any position. While his defense in left field was solid, his .218/.248/.412 was unacceptable — especially considering the average AL left fielder hit .252/.312/.404 this past season. His wOBA and wRC+ were the worst marks posted by any left fielder in baseball. Mike Trout actually posted a higher WAR than Wells in just 135 plate appearances.
It’s not that easy, of course. Trout may already be the better player, but the Angels may be hesitant to bench a player they owe a large chunk of money. Wells still has three years left on his deal, averaging about $21 million per season. Even though Wells’ performance does not warrant a starting spot, that’s a high price to pay for a bench player.
One of the three players could be traded to make room for Trout, but even that seems unlikely. Both Wells and Hunter are owed a significant amount of money, and our own Dave Cameron already outlined why it would be foolish for the Angels to deal Bourjos. Trout is only 20-years-old, and still can be optioned to the minor leagues. That would be the easiest way to resolve the situation, but would not give the Angels the optimal lineup.
If Wells is benched, it won’t reflect poorly on the front office — and Jerry DiPoto in particular — who inherited Wells’ awful contract. While DiPoto probably hopes Wells lives up to the contract, he wasn’t the one that traded for Wells. That could make it easier for DiPoto to tell Scioscia to forget about player salaries, and play the best nine guys.
Trout could technically end up as the starting DH, but that would be a terrible waste of resources. Trout is capable of playing great outfield defense, and his value would not be optimized in a DH role. Plus, the Angels still have Mark Trumbo and potentially Kendrys Morales to fill that role. If Trout does start, it has to be in the outfield.
Based on his ceiling, Trout definitely deserves a starting role. He’s already a better player than Wells, and you could make the argument that he’ll be more valuable than Hunter next season — or at least comparable in value. Here’s hoping the Angels don’t take the easy way out, because you can bet your bass Trout should be a starter.