At this point, the only thing standing between the Angels and being a largely irrelevant second banana in the Los Angeles market is Mike Trout.
Yeah, Mike Trout, the guy they rewarded for a historic Rookie of the Year and near-MVP campaign in 2012 by paying him $20,000 more than the major league minimum.
Even with Trout, perhaps no large-market team is more poorly positioned for 2016 and beyond than the Halos. Albert Pujols, who is due $212 million over the next eight years, looks like an albatross. Josh Hamilton might be worth only a small fraction of his $30 million salaries in 2016 and ’17. Ace Jered Weaver is now one of the game’s softest-tossing righties. The team’s Opening Day lineup this year will likely have just one player besides Trout under 30 (outfielder Kole Calhoun), and the farm system rates as one of the game’s very worst (the only Angel to make Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects this year was second baseman Taylor Lindsey at No. 93).
Now, having the game’s best player goes a long way. But the Angels have already wasted two of his bargain years. Once they have to start paying him what he’s worth, while also paying Pujols and Hamilton $55 million or so annually, they’ll find it even more difficult to surround him with quality talent. It all suggests that Trout’s best path to a championship is to exit at the first available opportunity. That is currently due to come following the 2017 season.
And it should be noted that the Angels haven’t exactly been generous with their young superstar so far. When the Angels had back-to-back picks, 24th and 25th overall, in the 2009 draft, they selected Trout second, even though he was their preferred player. The thinking was it’d improve their negotiating position a bit. That’s smart business, but Trout might not have appreciated it overly much.
The more damaging decision could have come last year, when the Angels renewed Trout for just $510,000. That’s what he was due according to their scale for non-arbitration eligible players, which was based on service time, not performance. They weren’t willing to make an exception even for the best thing that had ever happened to their franchise. Were they worried that J.B. Shuck would say, “you gave Trout $750,000, where’s my $600,000?”
That Trout is weighing a long-term deal with the Angels suggests he never took it personally, which is wonderful news for management and ownership. Pretty much any figure the Halos can come up with would be a smart deal for them, what with Trout in position to shatter every previous arbitration record and then command a deal worth $40 million-$50 million annually in free agency.
Trout, though, has less incentive to give up free agent years than anyone who has come before him. He’s a position player and he’s built like a truck, so he’s a good bet to stay relatively healthy. Furthermore, he could tell the Angels today that he’s willing to give up his arbitration years for $50 million, and the team would surely take him up on it, what with the likelihood that he could make closer to $75 million those three seasons. That would set him up quite nicely for whatever his future holds.
Maybe Trout will sign two or three additional years away anyway. After all, $150 million is tough to pass up, and that’d still put him in position to sign a huge contract at 28 or 29 (as is, he’s slated to be a free agent at age 26). Making a home of SoCal probably isn’t bad, either.
However, Trout’s quickest path to being both a World Series winner and the game’s highest-paid player would seem to be to eschew such a deal now. If the Angels find themselves in a better position, the money will still be there for Trout two or three years down the road.