Unlike Past Signings, Trout Is the Real Deal
Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 01:10
It’s a time of great change in baseball: The Yankees are aged and decrepit, the steroid era has been replaced by a new wave of pitching dominance and Bud Selig will be ending his reign as MLB commissioner in 2014. With the sharp decline of offense in baseball, the big free agent contract has looked more inefficient than ever. Sluggers in their prime are routinely getting massive contracts only to break down and become massive payroll liabilities. Alex Rodriguez is the most high-profile example because his production decreased greatly after his 2007 AL MVP season as age began eroding both his hips and his once-spry legs. He was 32 when he signed that record 10 year, $275 million contract that offseason, and this front office disaster cannot be far from the front of every Yankee executive’s mind as the team negotiates with soon-to-be 31-year-old Robinson Cano this offseason. If Cano doesn’t come down from his 10-year, $305 million demands, they will surely let him walk.
The Yankees may have been fooled once, but the Los Angeles Angels have doubled down and been burned by bad blockbuster deals in back-to-back years. Without the benefit of hindsight, the Angels can hardly be blamed for overreaching to sign then-31-year-old Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $254 million contract. Pujols — seen at the time as on his way to maybe the best career of any hitter in the history of the game — was so consistently brilliant that even the frugal St. Louis Cardinals came close to deliberately ignoring all reason and reservations to resign their prized slugger. Two years in, St. Louis must feel as if they dodged a quarter-billion dollar bullet. Age hit Pujols like a freight train — just as it does to all sluggers once they enter their early-to-mid-30s — and the production that dipped slightly from 2009 to 2011 has plummeted to unthinkable depths. In only 99 games this season, Pujols hit .258 with a career low 17 home runs and 64 RBI. If — and this is a big if — Pujols can regain his health, he might have a few All-Star caliber seasons in him, but the best-case scenario sees the Angels getting four years of marginally All-Star caliber play, and six years of replacement-level production.
Given Pujols’ shocking decline, the Angels’ offseason signing of 31-year-old Josh Hamilton for five years and $125 million seemed naively optimistic. After all, Hamilton at his peak was no Pujols, and his past substance abuse problems had raised red flags and robbed him of some of his prime years. Hamilton’s production drop mirrored that of Pujols, and although his contract is not as damaging, it’s another blow to the Angels’ bloated payroll. Yet despite these two massive miscalculations and the consistent deterioration of sluggers in their 30s, the Angels’ biggest misstep is not spending even more.
The lack of returns that the Angels have seen from the Pujols and Hamilton contracts has been slightly mitigated by the best steal in baseball: Mike Trout, arguably the best player in the game, whom they are paying only half a million dollars per year. And at 22, he can only get better. The Angels may be getting a steal right now, but by renewing Trout’s rookie deal this season instead of restructuring a more lucrative long-term deal, they opened up the market for the young outfielder, and he is rapidly driving up that price. With his arbitration coming in 2015 and free agency soon after in 2017, Trout now has all the leverage. He can afford to wait for free agency, because after two more years of a near-league-minimum $500,000, he will start raking in upwards of $10 million from arbitration until 2017.
As a player with a complete skill set, Trout is a rare commodity in baseball: He hits for a high average, hits for extra bases, plays great defense, has phenomenal speed and demonstrates home run power that will translate into true slugging ability as he physically matures. Trout’s complete game has led to unprecedented value based on Wins Above Replacement, a popular statistic among executives and baseball stat heads. Trout has both the best rookie season WAR and the best sophomore season WAR in baseball history. His 10.7 WAR as a rookie was the highest in baseball since Barry Bonds’ ridiculous 2001 and 2002 MVP seasons. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that in an era of overpriced contracts, Trout will be worth every penny of his, which could be the first $300-million deal in history. When free agency comes, Trout will be 26 and entering into a prime that could be historically unmatched. Those extra four or five years between Trout’s free agency and those of Pujols, Hamilton and the like will make all the difference. Unlike Pujols, whose payday came five years later than Trout’s will, and who will split his contract’s decade between All-Star and replacement-level play, Trout will split his between All-Star level and MVP-level play. Even assuming he gets a record-breaking $300 million over 10 years, Mike Trout’s historically good start and uncommonly accelerated free agency indicate he will be more than worth the investment.
Darius Majd is a junior in the College. THE SPORTING LIFE appears every Tuesday.