Mike Trout wants to stay an Angel. Now he won’t have to go through free agent hell.
On Tuesday, Trout, 27, neared a deal worth roughly $430 million to stay with the Los Angeles Angels for the next 12 years, which would be the largest contract ever signed by an athlete on this planet. This bombshell, about a modest person who is also one of baseball’s best players ever, opens windows of insight in all directions.
First, it shows that a quiet, understated player, who has never tried to brand himself, can accept what probably constitutes a hometown discount and still top Bryce Harper’s recent contract by about $100 million. Production trumps pomade.
Trout’s deal is a 10-year, roughly $360 million extension on top of an existing two-year, $66.5 million contract. And it has no opt-outs. Trout isn’t going anywhere — except Malibu. Harper may get to Cooperstown, but it won’t be as a recruiter for the Phillies.
The biggest shock: Trout just gave a finger to rings. For a century, superstar athletes have tended to measure their careers, and sometimes even their lives, by the number of championships they accumulated.
From Babe Ruth’s Yankees to Bill Russell’s Celtics to Michael Jordan’s Bulls to Tom Brady’s Patriots, titles have been the currency of glory. As an Angel, Trout has been in the postseason only once, and his teams have never won a single playoff game. With the weight of his current deal burdening future Angels rosters, Trout has certainly not maximized his chances to win titles. He may have reduced them.
By nearing a deal two years before he could become a free agent after the 2020 season, Trout has taken the position that if you are happy in your work and in your life, and you are paid a “market” price — in his case, enough to ransom several kings — then it is not necessary to demand the moon in addition to the money. Over 12 future years, who can pretend to guess how much, or little, the Angels may win? But at least for the foreseeable future, Anaheim does not look like titletown.
For most of my life, my favorite athletes have tended to be the great ring-gatherers. So, when it comes to Trout, and his decision, I’m not making a value judgment — just an observation. Trout has chosen to stay with a team that is 60-to-1 to win the World Series this year. Sixteen teams have better odds. The Halos’ future does not intimidate many foes, unless Trout can pitch southpaw and win 25 games.
Trout’s decision has a powerful context: the disappointing to disastrous experience of many free agents over the past two offseasons. In baseball, who says that you can choose to play with a champion, no matter how good you are? Look at what happened to Manny Machado and Harper.
For nearly four months, the 26-year-old stars held court like royalty, in some cases with billionaires flying cross-country to visit and implore them. Yet neither got to choose from great teams with great teammates in great towns with great traditions. Okay, San Diego is beautiful. But Machado would never have put the Padres, another 60-to-1 team, atop his wish list. Harper, so often mentioned as a Yankee or Dodger, signed with the Phillies, who, even with him, are only a pleasant 12-to-1 to win it all — the same as the Nats he left.
The current message of free agency is this: If you’re happy where you are, think seriously about forgoing the whole exhausting, exasperating experience. Don’t risk ending up with a ton of cash but playing in a uniform that makes you think, “???”
Before the collective bargaining agreement expires after 2021, we’re going to see others get their long-term extensions done before free agency. The Nats’ Anthony Rendon is on that shortlist. The top of the market has been set, maybe for many years. Trout, Harper, Machado and Nolan Arenado just signed for about $1.3 billion combined. If you can’t negotiate off those deals, when will you ever be able to? Only those who are “unhappy at home” are likely to exit.
These four monstrous deals, all within a few weeks, should be good long-term news for MLB, and they underline one more factor that works against great young athletes in the next generation who choose football as their career path.
There may be a few more Kyler Murrays, who win the Heisman Trophy in college football, then go to the NFL, rather than take bonus money to be an outfielder in the Oakland Athletics’ system. But the trend is against it. Football is just starting to face the brain-damage catastrophe of CTE as MLB and NBA contracts continue to shoot to the sky. If you have a choice, why not be an NBA guard or play any position in baseball where your health and wealth have vastly better odds?
We will have to wait many years to evaluate each of this offseason’s mega-contracts individually. But I’m willing to predict the outcome of all of them, taken as a group: These will be poor-to-awful deals for the teams that are now so happy.
The reason: Trout.
Through 26, the 10 players most comparable to him statistically are (in order): Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Miguel Cabrera, Orlando Cepeda, Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, Andruw Jones and Albert Pujols. You could hardly concoct a more fabulous list.
But Aaron is the only one out of these 10 who would have been worth the contract that the Angels are about to give Trout through his age-38 season.
Remember, the Angels already had Trout under contract for two more years — and he’ll probably remain spectacular in 2019 and 2020. It’s the decade after that that probably won’t work out well, especially the eight years from age 31 through 38 that caused the erosion of the talents and health of every one of the players on that list, except Aaron.
I could inundate you with stats about how many games these players missed from age 31 onward, or how much their on-base-plus-slugging percentages fell. But let’s make it simple: When a player leads the league in any offensive category, that number appears in bolded “black ink” on Baseball-Reference.com. Trout has 24 numbers in black ink.
How did our 10 amazing players do through their age-30 season vs. all of their seasons from 31 through 38, if they even managed to play that long?
First, remove Aaron, the exception that proves the rule. Through age 30, the other nine stars above led their league 137 times in some positive category.
From age 31 through 38, those nine players led their league in anything just 15 times. That’s the brutal ratio and a measure of the consequence of age: 137 to 15.
Pujols, Jones, Cepeda, Griffey and Robinson never led the league in anything again. (I didn’t count “hit by pitch.”) The other totals were: Ott (five), Mathews (four), Mantle (three) and Cabrera (three).
Trout probably will be a huge fish for about the next four years — but what happens after that?
In his first six full seasons, Trout barely missed a game. But the past two years, still very young at 25 and 26, he missed 70 games because of injuries.
Last spring, a veteran who had signed a $100 million-plus contract, said, “I don’t think you will ever see another 10-year contract.” He was wrong. Or maybe his prediction was just early.
Come back in about a decade, when all these huge long-term gambles have played out.
One of them may pan out with Aaron-like “old age” production. Maybe it’ll be Trout. Or Harper. Or Machado. But it probably won’t be more than one of them.
This is a watershed moment in baseball. Wait a few years, and then see who goes over the waterfall.