Back in 2007, Barry Bonds passed Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list, Roger Clemens won the 350th game of his career and Craig Biggio joined the 3,000-hit club.
The best hitters in the sport were Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols, and though we hadn’t heard of WAR at the time, they led their respective leagues in wins above replacement that year. On the mound, Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb and Josh Beckett belonged in any conversation about the game’s best pitchers.
Troy Tulowitzki should have won Rookie of the Year. Prince Fielder hit 50 homers. Grady Sizemore played all 162. It was a long time ago.
Keeping that flashback in mind, there’s no doubt that the baseball landscape will look completely different by the time Mike Trout’s reported 12-year, $430 million contract expires. Trout himself will be 39 years old, still making $36 million per season and inevitably a diminished player.
But even as we acknowledge that eventual decline, even as Trout breaks records for average annual value and total guarantee, this deal makes all kinds of sense for the Angels.
With Trout, everything’s on a different scale. He hasn’t simply been an all-star or an MVP (though of course he has seven all-star appearances and two MVPs). To this point in his career, he has been better than Bryce Harper and Manny Machado combined. He averages nine wins above replacement per season. Through his age-26 season, Trout has generated more value than anyone in baseball history.
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When you keep company like that, you get paid. Plus, as Trout enters his age-27 season he has plenty of prime years remaining. Who knows, he might still be getting better.
"In a perfect world the best gets paid the most," said one longtime evaluator. "The Angels always get their money’s worth with Mike."
The same can’t necessarily be said for the last mega-deal from Angels owner Arte Moreno, but an important difference exists between Trout’s agreement and the $240 million deal signed by Albert Pujols.
Pujols’ contract has become an albatross partly because three years remain on it even at age 39. By the time Trout’s that old, his deal will be done.
Even if Trout’s contract is just as problematic in 2030, the final year of the deal, that’s the price the Angels pay for his prime. Sure, they could have let him test free agency two years from now, but if you’re a big-market team and an inner-circle Hall of Famer shows up at a time that revenues are setting records across the sport, are you really going to let him walk?
There’s no doubt that $430 million’s a huge commitment, but we’re technically looking at $360 million in new money here, since Trout was already under contract through 2020. If he had hit free agency entering his age-29 season, the free agent bidding could easily have exceeded $360 million over ten years once teams like the Phillies and Yankees got involved. Now the Angels don’t have to run the risk of losing Trout. When he goes into Cooperstown, he’ll be wearing their hat.
Bargain’s not quite the right word here considering the contract will top Harper’s previous record by a full $100 million while also breaking Zack Greinke’s record average annual value of $34.4 million. Still, it’s hard to overstate Trout’s on-field impact. Even using the conservative forecasting systems at FanGraphs, Trout’s projected for 8.4 wins above replacement in 2019. In other words, if you add Trout to a .500 team you reach 90 wins. No one else in baseball approaches that impact.
With Trout, Harper, Machado and Nolan Arenado all signed, four of the biggest contracts in baseball history have been completed in the last month. Even as baseball’s middle class continues to falter, owners are clearly willing to spend big on the sport’s elite.
That’s good news for the likes of Paul Goldschmidt and Gerrit Cole, both of whom are free agents after this season. Jacob deGrom (after 2020), Francisco Lindor (after 2021) and Kris Bryant (after 2021) must also be pleased to see baseball’s best getting paid.
But of all the players who could realistically command baseball’s next $400 million deal, Mookie Betts might be the best positioned. Betts rejected a $200 million deal from the Red Sox last off-season, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, and his value has only risen since then with an MVP and World Series win. Barring an extension at some point in the next two years, he’ll test free agency after the 2020 season.
For now Trout’s alone atop the MLB salary structure, locked in place as the Angels’ franchise player. It took a huge commitment–double the $184 million it cost Moreno to buy the team back in 2003–but if Trout’s first seven seasons offer much indication, it’ll be money well spent.