The Los Angeles Angels were supposed to have it all this season. Fresh off of an 89-win year in 2012, the franchise was hoping for a bounceback season of sorts from slugger Albert Pujols and a World Series appearance. Pujols floundered miserably in 2013 (17 HRs/64 RBI/.258 BA in an injury-riddled season). He was actually considerably worse than he was last year and with a struggling pitching staff, one of the the only things L.A. could rely upon was the consistency of Mike Trout.
Trout, if you haven’t heard, is perhaps the best young player in baseball. Okay, so he is the best young player in baseball. In fact, the WAR freaks out there might even tell you he’s the best pure player in the game. More than solid arguments can be made for the likes of Miguel Cabrera (and that’s where my vote goes), but Trout, if nothing else, is surely one of the game’s top players. Last year, Trout hit 30 home runs, drove in 83 runs, batted .326, and even stole a league-high 49 bases for good measure. Easily the Rookie of the Year, the outfielder finished in second place for the MVP vote to the aforementioned Cabrera. What really drove the stats geeks bonkers, though, was his 10.9 WAR – easily the best in the majors.
In 2013, Trout did nothing to relinquish his title of All-World Talent. So far this year, he has 26 home runs, 92 RBI, and is batting .324. Trout was also a great defensive player last year with only four errors, but has gotten even better in 2013. Playing mostly at center field, he has committed only two errors on the entire season, even though he’s played in more games than he did last year.
In Trout, Los Angeles has a 22-year-old, legitimate five-tool player that could be the best in baseball. If he’s not already, perhaps in a few seasons. That’s the type of player teams are generally in a hurry to lock up, but Los Angeles appears to be taking their time. Trout’s agent, Craig Landis, recently told the L.A. Times that there haven’t been any discussions between the two sides for a long-term deal. The fact that a new long-term contract isn’t on the table is not entirely surprising. He’s only been in the majors for two years now and more often than not, teams want to see significant production out of their younger stars before ponying up boatloads of cash. Trout’s production, however, has been so ridiculously incredible that it’s surprising that casual talks haven’t even taken place if the agent’s assertions are correct.
Currently, Trout is making $510,000 – just above the league minimum for crying out loud. Based on the type of production the team has gotten from him, his value in free agency would be through the roof if he were on the open market.
Baseball’s a different game and teams control their players’ rights for several years at bargain-basement prices. Trout himself acknowledges that he’s got to wait his turn and keep producing through the seasons in which the Angels maintain control over what they pay him. He isn’t even arbitration-eligible until 2015 and won’t be a free agent until 2018. In other words, he won’t truly get market value for many more seasons if the Angels don’t offer him a long-term deal before he hits free agency.
Here’s the thing – the Angels can do whatever they want in this situation. They can pay him peanuts again next year, and go to arbitration with him for the three following seasons, hoping to pay him less than he’s truly worth. By doing so, though, the franchise is playing a dangerous game. The longer Trout keeps performing without a long-term deal, the greater the chance that he becomes alienated and annoyed. A big payday after his arbitration years by the team will go a long way toward mending any broken fences, but if he’s offered similar deals by other teams, the club’s treatment of him in the first six years of his career could be the deciding factor.
Also, keep in mind that the franchise’s deal with Pujols could play a part as well. That contract looks more and more like an albatross around the team’s collective neck and could be the thing that hampers the club from paying Trout what they really want to pay him. Pujols is still owed more than $200 million through the 2021 season (seriously, they’ll be paying him $59 million in his final two seasons when he’s 40 and 41 … that wasn’t at all a bad deal) and with that much money tied up, even if they are able to offer Trout the money he deserves, the question has to be asked – what type of team will they be able to field around the two players?
Because of that, it behooves the Angels to work out a deal with Trout now when a more cost-friendly one can be reached. If Los Angeles waits too long, the price tag will be even steeper and possibly, out of reach for their wallet.
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