There’s an emerging story in Angels land that could have the potential to be bigger than it should be. And it involves the team’s best player.
Mike Trout had a record-setting season last year. He won the AL Rookie of the Year and should have won the MVP, instead finishing second in voting to Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers. By all accounts, Trout was the best player in baseball last season. For a player with his small amount of service time, this presents a bit of a conundrum.
As per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Major League Baseball and its players have a rather elaborate system of compensation. The system rewards—more than any specific skill—seniority. Players with less than three years service time (two if they fall into the dubious ‘Super-2’ category) have very little leverage in contract negotiations with their club.
These ‘pre-arbitration’ players are subject to contract renewals if no agreement is reached between them and their club. Teams are not obligated to pay a player with less than three years service time any more than the league minimum, which currently sits at $490,000. But they can pay them more if they choose to.
With the deadline to negotiate new deals for the 2013 season passed, the Angels have decided to pay Trout—whom they could not come to an agreement with—a mere $510,000, under 5% more than the league minimum.
Now you may be saying to yourself, “Why would the Angels even go that high? They’re not obligated to. Shouldn’t they be trying to get the most value they can out of someone like Trout before he starts to get expensive?”
On the surface, you’d be right. The Angels should be trying to get the most value they can out of Trout. Paying him the league minimum while he performs at MVP-calibre levels adds value to a player who already produces more than anyone else on the field.
But the Angels should be really careful here. They risk angering their best player and someone who they would no doubt like to build around for the next ten or more years.
In fact, Trout’s agent Craig Landis issued a statement after the Angels decreed that Trout would make only slightly more than the league minimum in 2013. MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez has the statement in full on his blog if you want to go read it, but here is the important part:
“During the process, on behalf of Mike, I asked only that the Angels compensate Mike fairly for his historic 2012 season, given his service time. In my opinion, this contract falls well short of a “fair” contract and I have voiced this to the Angels throughout the process. Nonetheless, the renewal of Mike’s contract will put an end of this discussion.”
Landis goes on to say that Trout will not comment on the matter and insinuates that Trout was also disappointed to learn that he would not be the team’s primary center fielder this season in order to make room for Peter Bourjos.
The Angels best tread lightly here. There was nothing stopping them from committing more money to Trout as a show of good faith and thanks for the season he put up last year. It wouldn’t have drastically affected their bottom line—I mean this is the Angels here; they have plenty of cash to toss around—and we wouldn’t be hearing from Trout’s agent today.
As Jeff Fletcher points out in his piece for the Orange County Register, there is a precedent here that the Angels could have followed.
When Albert Pujols won the Rookie of the Year and finished fourth in NL MVP voting in 2001, the Cardinals signed him at $600,000 for his second year. That figure was double the league minimum and three times what he made the year before. In 1998, Derek Jeter was renewed for an amount that was five times the league minimum (which, granted was at a paltry $109,000), and the following year in 1999, the Cubs renewed Kerry Wood for six times the league minimum.
Fletcher continues by pointing out that in the last five years, the 10 players who won the Rookie of the Year award “were paid an average of 21.7% over the minimum” with the largest bump in that span going to the Cubs’ Geovany Soto who signed for 44% over the minimum.
Looking at the other players who populate that list, you get names like Jeremy Hellickson, Neftali Feliz, Andrew Bailey, Evan Longoria, and Chris Coghlan. Some of them are great players—others less so. You could argue that none of them—apart from maybe Buster Posey and Longoria—have near the ceiling or franchise-shaping potential that Trout has.
The Angels run the risk of effecting future negotiations with Trout which, granted, won’t be an issue for a while—neither the player nor the team should have much interest in a long-term extension at this point. The Angels have the deep pockets to let Trout get further into his career before making a long-term commitment and Trout is probably unwilling to take anything below market-value after last year.
Returning to that list of Rookie of the Year winners from the past five years, the only season that even comes close to comparing to Trout’s is Ryan Braun’s 2007 campaign. Braun was renewed the following offseason for just 16% above the league minimum (still significantly more than Trout), but later that year was signed to an eight-year contract extension.
Following his 2010 Rookie of the Year season, Posey was renewed for $575,000, nearly 44% above the league minimum and although it was a great season, it was nowhere near the year Trout had.
To be sure, the Angels have done nothing wrong here. They are following the rules set out by the CBA and have no obligation to veer outside of those rules for anyone, but one only has to look as far back as 2008 to see why this sort of tactic on a part of the team can be a risky one.
That year, the Brewers renewed Prince Fielder for an amount that was below what he thought he should get and he publicly chided the team. I’m not saying that Fielder was right in this regard, but it goes to show you how pissing off a franchise player can hurt long-term negotiations. Fielder ostensibly went year-to-year in contract negotiations with the Brewers until he left via free agency at the first possible moment. Might he have been more amenable to signing a long-term, slightly below-market contract if they had friendlier negotiations early on? Perhaps.
Obviously there’s no way to know for sure given Fielder’s agent Scott Boras and his aversion to long-term deals which buy out arbitration years, but this could be one of those situations which leaves a bad taste in Trout’s mouth for a long time. Seeing him leave after just six seasons in the middle of his prime would be devastating, especially considering the age of Pujols and the currently barren nature of the Angels’ farm system.
There’s also an opinion out there that Landis is somehow doing something wrong by calling out the Angels publicly. Although there could be an unwanted public backlash against Trout for being greedy (which would be, as it usually is, entirely unwarranted), Landis knows exactly what he’s doing here. The Angels assuredly want to keep Trout happy. Next year, when this very same issue arises again, they may be more inclined to throw Trout a few extra dollars to avoid the same thing happening. It looks bad on all parties, but Trout definitely has the leverage if the Angels want to keep him beyond his sixth season.
If you use Posey as the baseline for what Trout should have received this season, Trout would be in line for a $706,000 salary in 2013—more if you consider just how great Trout was in 2012. Is an additional $200,000 or so really going to affect the Angels all that much? Is the risk of alienating your best player—and maybe the best player in baseball—worth that savings? I would guess not.
At the end of the day, this is close to a non-story and it should be remembered that Landis is not Trout and we really don’t know how much—or even if—Trout cares about his current contract. My guess is that he’s well aware of his earning potential in the years to come and is not going to concern himself much with being slighted by a few hundred thousand dollars this season.