Angels need to figure out what Trout is worth
If club wants to lock up outfielder, it should lay groundwork for extension soon
Camp Trout opens later this week, and by that I mean the Angels will report to Spring Training and begin finding answers to the two most meaningful questions surrounding the organization, both of which revolve around a single once-in-a-generation player.
Do they have enough talent surrounding Mike Trout?
Do they have enough money to pay Trout?
Both questions are complicated.
For the past two years, the Angels have enjoyed paying a bargain-basement price for the game's greatest all-around talent -- a guy so versatile and valuable that President Barack Obama invoked his name as a means of touting his newly passed farm bill (and Obama made that speech in Michigan, i.e. Miguel Cabrera territory, of all places).
For those same two years, Trout's talent has been wasted on teams that, for reasons obviously outside of his control, went nowhere.
In part because of the outsized contracts they've already lavished upon the likes of Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson and in part because of the outsized (and that's putting it lightly) contract it will take to retain Trout through and beyond his fast-approaching arbitration years, the Angels' theme this winter was cost-efficient improvement.
Personally, I applaud the effort.
The Halos moved an attractive yet somewhat one-dimensional player in Mark Trumbo in order to address their glaring need for pitching depth, landing two young, cost-controlled left-handed arms in Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. They moved an athletic and dynamic but, unfortunately, superfluous and injury-prone outfielder in Peter Bourjos in order to add bullpen depth with Fernando Salas and to place a gamble on a bounce-back season from former World Series hero David Freese.
In a market starved for power, they gave a low-risk, one-year contract to Raul Ibanez, who has shown he still has some thunder in that 41-year-old bat. They placed a worthwhile three-year bet on workhorse reliever Joe Smith and added another potential bullpen option when signing Brandon Lyon to a Minor League deal on Monday. And to create what ought to be a captivating Spring Training story, if nothing else, they threw an incentive-laden Minor League deal at Mark Mulder, because, well, why not?
Total guaranteed outlay for all of these players? A little more than $20 million. And for an Angels team venturing toward the luxury-tax threshold, this is, of course, a pertinent point.
What is obvious about the Halos is that even if all of the above pan out, it's hard to imagine their season gaining much traction if Pujols and Hamilton don't improve upon their 2013 output. And let's be honest: That's a pretty low bar.
Pujols was limited by injury to just 99 games last year, while Hamilton's adjusted OPS plummeted to just barely above league average. Both sluggers are now the subject of the usual Spring Training storylines. Pujols is already touting the benefits of having had a "normal" offseason after enduring right knee surgery and plantar fasciitis last season (though, hopefully, his performance on the field won't be nearly as stiff as his recent acting opposite Grover on "Sesame Street"). Hamilton, who last season admitted he was too skinny and needed a "little extra butt," has put on more than 20 pounds.
OK, great. Those are typical February plot points, but none of us knows how they'll apply to April. Still, it's hard to imagine the bottom totally falling out for both of those guys. Pujols has seen his swing percentage outside the strike zone rise considerably the last two seasons, and this must be corrected. Hamilton's walk and line-drive rates rose in the second half last season, and this must be sustained. It is incumbent upon new hitting coach Don Baylor to help make it happen.
It is not overly optimistic to suggest the Angels could be a top-five offense this season, if their pieces play to their potential. Nor is it unrealistic to expect improvement from the last three spots of the rotation, which went a combined 30-42 with a 4.90 ERA last year.
The American League West won't reward regression, and the Halos don't have the organizational depth to endure a spate of injuries. But you don't have to squint too hard to see, at minimum, a competitive club here. Perhaps Trout will actually get some pitches to hit and won't have his shiny WAR rendered moot.
But that doesn't even get to the heart of the other question, which is the most captivating contractual conundrum in the game today.
The Angels missed an opportunity to extend Trout with an Evan Longoria-like contract before he blew up, they frustrated both player and agent with a low-ball minimum salary last season and now, on the heels of another stellar season with arbitration just a year away, they can either bid boldly or let Trout's arb years take on their natural, potentially problematic course.
The issue of Trout's worth is one that will be bandied about throughout Spring Training. The Halos have no incentive to sign him before Opening Day, because they wouldn't want his expanded salary to count toward the 2014 luxury-tax threshold, but it does behoove them to lay the groundwork in camp if they have any intention of getting a deal done.
What, exactly, is Trout worth? Executives will give you any number of numbers ($200 million? $300 million? $400 million?), each more outlandish than the last.
The problem is that there is simply no precedent for a player like Trout in the free-agent era. He's played just 336 career games, and he's already been on base 602 times. Lunacy. Over the last two seasons, Trout has scored the most runs (238), notched the sixth-most extra-base hits (140) and swiped the second-most bags (82) in baseball. And because I just recently espoused the value of weighted runs created plus, I might as well note that Trout's wRC+ of 171 over the last two years is second only to Cabrera's 178 mark.
Oh, and Trout's 20.4 WAR over the past two seasons, if you're into that sort of thing, is the best in baseball, and it's not even remotely close. FanGraphs.com has Andrew McCutchen second, at 15.0.
Pre-arb extensions are predicated upon the notion that players value the security blanket they offer, should an injury or regression arise. And nobody knows what the financials will look like when Trout hits the free-agent market in 2017, particularly with a Collective Bargaining Agreement update looming a year earlier.
But there's no denying that Trout has all the bargaining power, at present. The two largest extensions in history given to players at least three years from free-agent eligibility went to Pujols (seven years, $100 million) and Buster Posey (eight years, $159 million). For Trout, Posey's $19.9 million average annual value is probably a mere starting point, and the decision he'd have to make is whether he wants to do a seismic decade-long deal that takes him into his early 30s, a shorter-term deal that buys out his arb years ahead of time or something in between.
Or maybe Trout will opt to just let 2014 play out as is, content in the knowledge that another sensational season will likely make him the most expensive player in the history of the arbitration process and hopeful that this Angels team is good enough to make that sensational performance matter in the standings.
That's a lot to think about as Camp Trout convenes.