- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2014

TEMPE, Ariz. — The awards, the accolades, the titles. Mike Trout has had his fair share of success during his first two full seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but the center fielder hasn’t been able to avoid a feeling of emptiness each fall.

The Angels haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, when they lost to the New York Yankees in the ALCS.

He wants to change that.

“I don’t think he’s ever taken the field thinking about, ‘Hey, you know, I’m going to put any of my personal goals ahead of winning a game,’” said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. “I think that’s part of why he’s a special player. He’s not chasing numbers. He’s out to play and help us win at all aspects.

“It’s definitely not a thing like, ‘For two years, he didn’t care about winning, and now he does.’ That’s not right.”

Trout debuted with the Angels late in 2011, but largely struggled to acclimate to the major leagues in 40 games. His first two full seasons with the Angels were spectacular, earning AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2012, while also finishing as the runner-up for the AL MVP award each year.

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Despite his performance, the Angels have spent their Octobers at home.

They were knocked out of playoff contention on the second-to-last day in 2012 despite finishing 89-73. Last season, they stumbled to a 78-84 record and a third-place finish in the AL West, sunk by injuries, subpar pitching and poor defense.

Not long after it ended, Trout, 22, returned home to Millville, N.J., as he has after each of the last three seasons, to decompress.

A few close high school friends have grown accustomed to the chaos Trout’s celebrity can cause, so any time spent together is time away from others.

The highlight of his offseason was a hunting trip just before Christmas — a chance for Trout to truly escape.

“He’s just very humble, and that’s pretty cool for a guy of his stature with the things he’s done his first couple years,” said Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick. “I mean, he’s very down-to-earth. He’s just like all of us. He’s the same guy. He just enjoys the game and he just wants to win.”

When Trout reported for spring training last month, the Angels, in a good-faith gesture, offered the outfielder a one-year, $1 million contract. It trumped the modest $20,000 raise Trout was handed after last season, and it was the most money ever given to a pre-arbitration player.

Even then, it’s nothing compared to what Trout is likely to earn when he becomes eligible for arbitration for the first time after this season. His performance to date could lead to a contract in excess of $150 million over six years, which were the figures reportedly discussed by the Angels and Trout’s representatives before spring training began.

“Arte [Moreno, the Angels’ owner] going out of his way — he easily could have given me the minimum, but he stepped up, and that makes you feel good about the organization,” Trout said.

But, as far as further discussions go, “I don’t think about that stuff. You just take it year-by-year right now and go from there.”

Exactly where the Angels go this season will depend on their regulars. First baseman Albert Pujols was limited to 99 games last year because of a tear of the plantar fascia in his left foot, and left fielder Josh Hamilton battled back, shoulder and wrist injuries during a mediocre season.

And rather than make the high-profile signings with which they’ve been associated the last few Decembers — Pujols in 2011, Hamilton in 2012 — the Angels altered their strategy, with their most notable moves a series of trades for third baseman David Freese and pitchers Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs.

When Freese first met Trout in February, he was struck by how easygoing and focused the young outfielder can be. After five seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, including two World Series appearances, Freese knew what a winning clubhouse felt like. This team, he thought, can be special.

Trout, though, has tried to stay focused and remained tight-lipped. His personal goal entering spring training was to be more aggressive early in counts, which he hopes will cut down on his high strikeout rate.

His other goal? Winning. After three years, he realizes whatever he hits and how much he produces means little unless the Angels are playing well into October.

“We’re just gonna take it one game at a time,” Trout said, the monotony in his voice telling. “It started [this year] with spring. We got off to a good start. Just keep it going.”

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