Trout a bargain for Halos now, but not for long
Outfielder set for fascinating second year, for reasons business- and ball-related
Vernon Wells will make $24.6 million this year.
Mike Trout will make less than $1 million.
What a world, huh?
Despite the MVP-type acclaim that arose out of Trout's historic rookie season, he is, in the context of collective bargaining, just another pre-arbitration player in position to demand no more than the league minimum, which, in 2013, is $490,000.
In renewing Trout's contract in the coming days (renewals for pre-arbitration players will take place from Saturday until March 11), the Angels can graciously grant him more than the minimum, but they are not obligated to extend themselves all that much.
What the Angels won't do, it appears, is extend Trout, even as some in the industry think this is the prime time to do so.
"If I'm them," one American League executive told me last month, "I'm already talking about a crazy-long deal. I don't think anybody knows what his ceiling is. You could be looking at the greatest modern player in the game."
Yes, we could. But such breathless enthusiasm in the wake of a resounding rookie year obviously emboldens Trout's bargaining position. And you can hardly blame the Halos if they're holding off until they have a better sense of the kid's "norm," whatever that reveals itself to be. Certainly, it is a worthwhile trend in the game to lock up young talent (10 pre-arb players were signed to extensions before the end of April in 2012), but it stands to reason that negotiating with a 21-year-old routinely getting compared to Mickey Mantle could be tricky business.
Trout should still see a raise in 2013, and perhaps a substantial one.
Just for the sake of context, the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner, Jeremy Hellickson, made $489,500, or just $9,500 above the 2012 minimum. But the more reasonable comparison to Trout would be Albert Pujols in 2002. Pujols was coming off a National League Rookie of the Year Award season in which he hit 37 homers and drove in 130 runs. The Cardinals renewed him at $600,000, or twice as much as the minimum. The following year, Pujols was renewed at $900,000, three times the minimum and a then-record for a third-year player.
If the Angels were to follow that pattern with Trout, he'd make a little less than $1 million this year, and potentially somewhere in the vicinity of $1.5 million in year three (when the league minimum will be $500,000).
Within the context of service-time standards, that's not too shabby, right? Even if Trout put up half the WAR total in 2013 and '14 that he did in '12, he would be an absolute steal at those salaries.
But if Trout's rookie season is anywhere near an indication of the type of player he's going to be on an annual basis, you can see where a patient approach can dig the Angels into quite a financial hole. Trout will be eligible for arbitration in 2015 -- the same year the Angels will be paying $25.4 million to a 34-year-old Josh Hamilton, $24 million to a 35-year-old Pujols and a combined $36.7 million to Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.
If the Angels wanted to get Trout at a bargain rate for his arbitration years -- with the kind of deal the Rays worked out with Evan Longoria in 2008 -- suffice to say, that ship began to leave the docks sometime in May 2012, when Trout was racking up a .941 OPS. By year's end, that ship was essentially lost at sea.
As it stands, Trout could be on track to eclipse Pujols and receive the largest contract ever given to a player with three years of service or less. Pujols became the pace-setter in that category when he signed a seven-year, $100 million extension (plus a $16 million club option that was eventually exercised) with the Cardinals in 2004.
But in baseball economics terms, 2004 was a lifetime -- or, more accurately, a ton of national and local television money -- ago. For Trout, $100 million could be but a baseline upon which to build, and that's what makes his situation so startling, even for a big-market club such as the Angels.
This, then, is going to be a fascinating follow-up season for Trout, for reasons both business- and ball-related. The record contract for a player with one year of service time is the eight-year, $45 million deal signed by Ryan Braun in 2008. At the moment, that number would be a non-starter for Trout, given his 2012 accomplishments. And if Trout repeats or nears his feats in 2013, you could be looking at a guy in line for nine figures well before he's even at an age eligible for discount car rental rates.
Trout also has the option of going the year-to-year route with the Angels and hitting free agency at 26 -- right on the cusp of what can be considered his ultra-prime. What a frenzy that would cause.
Anyway, let's try to focus on the present. Trout's speed and defense capabilities seemingly assure him status as a premier player in '13, but several mathematical projections -- ZiPS, Baseball HQ, PECOTA -- are anticipating what can be called a significant regression for Trout at the plate: a batting average below .300, an OPS below .900, less than 30 home runs. Still a very strong season, just not the leviathan level he reached in '12 (perhaps because those forecasters are concerned about Trout's 21.8 percent strikeout rate).
Such regression would obviously affect the formula for a Trout extension. The Angels, then, are probably right to practice patience. But in doing so, they run the risk that Trout again attains an MVP-eligible level and prices himself into a new stratosphere.
For now, let's just appreciate Trout for what he is -- the best bargain in baseball.