Ron Santo 1940-2010

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Awful news: Chicago Cubs great Ron Santo has died at age 70. Santo had been battling bladder cancer, lapsed into a coma on Wednesday and died yesterday.

Ron Santo was one of the most productive and consistent players of the 1960s and early 70s.  Because of the low overall offensive profile of the era, however, it might be easy to overlook just how great he really was.  His career line was .277/.362/.424.  His adjusted OPS, however — which takes era into account — was 125, which places him in similar territory to Yogi Berra, Charlie Gehringer, Kirby Puckett and many other Hall of Fame talents.  As is often the case for third basemen, however, Santo’s contributions have been under appreciated.  But he was under appreciated even among third basemen. Indeed, in 1964 two third basemen won MVP awards: Brooks Robinson and Ken Boyer.  Santo had better seasons than either of them. His value is illustrated by the fact that, for thirty years, the Cubs third base position was defined largely by the fact that they could never get anyone there who could hold a candle him.

Santo was a nine-time All-Star. He hit for power, ranking near the top in home runs all-time among third basemen. He hit for average. He took a ton of walks. He had a nice glove too, winning five Gold Gloves. He was never honored with election to the Hall of Fame, but that’s the Hall of Fame’s fault, not Santo’s.  For what it’s worth he has been considered either the best or among the best players not to be elected to the Hall of Fame for many years. For Santo’s part, he said that the Cubs retiring his number 10 was a greater honor. And given his place in Cubs’ history, I agree with that.

Santo suffered from diabetes during his playing career and for the remainder of his life. He had both legs amputated below the knee as a result, yet remained active working for the Cubs as a broadcaster, booster and ambassador.  He was always upbeat and positive. The Cubs and baseball as a whole were lucky to have his like as a player and as a friend.

Rest in Peace, Ron.

Angels rewarded for playing it straight with Mike Trout

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Tuesday’s big news featured Angels outfielder Mike Trout, who inked a 12-year, $426.5 million contract extension. As the deal replaced the two years and $66.5 million remaining on his previous contract, it is effectively a 10-year, $360 million contract. As Craig argued earlier, Trout’s contract for over one-third of a billion dollars is actually quite a bargain for a player of his caliber.

The Angels got such a bargain and the privilege of retaining one of the greatest baseball players of all time because they played it straight with Trout since they drafted him in 2009. Trout was selected 25th overall in the first round. His talent was immediately obvious, as he hit .360/.418/.506 in 39 games at rookie ball preceding a late-season promotion to Single-A Cedar Rapids. Trout earned a promotion to High-A Rancho Cucamonga the next summer. In 2011, Trout started the season with Double-A Arkansas before earning a call-up to the majors in early July. In roughly two years, Trout went from drafted out of high school to playing in the majors.

The Angels did not try to manipulate Trout’s service time, something that has become increasingly common among teams holding the game’s top prospects. The Cubs held Kris Bryant down in the minors longer than necessary in 2015 in order to gain an extra year of contractual control. The Braves did the same with Ronald Acuña Jr. last year. Despite an injury, the Blue Jays were going to keep No. 1 prospect Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. in the minors to start the 2019 season anyway, at least until they gained their extra year of contractual control.

Trout, though? The Angels called him up to debut on July 8, 2011 against the Mariners, replacing the injured Peter Bourjos in center field. At the time, the Angels were just one game out of first place behind the Rangers. Trout hit an abysmal .163/.213/.279 in 14 games. The Angels, understandably, sent him back to Double-A once Bourjos came off the disabled list. Trout was called back up in mid-August, sharing the outfield corners with Torii Hunter and an underperforming Vernon Wells. Trout put up a healthier .768 OPS the rest of the way.

Of course, we all know what Trout would become from that point on. Trout won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2012, also finishing second in AL MVP Award balloting. He likely would have won the award if Miguel Cabrera hadn’t won the Triple Crown. In 2013, Trout again finished second in AL MVP voting (again, to Cabrera, who did not win the Triple Crown this time). Though the Angels could have renewed Trout’s salary for not much more than the $510,000 he earned in 2013, the club chose to pay him $1 million for the 2014 season, a record one-year salary for a pre-arbitration player. One month later, the club inked him to a six-year, $144.5 million contract, covering the 2015-20 seasons — Trout’s age 23-28 seasons. Trout accrued a ridiculous 36.6 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. The only other players in that neighborhood over that same span of time are Mookie Betts (32.9), José Altuve (26.0), and Nolan Arenado (25.3).

Prior to Tuesday’s extension news, many were already looking towards the free agent market after the 2020 season, when Trout would have become a free agent. Bryce Harper, who signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies earlier this month, openly talked about recruiting Trout to the Phillies. Trout is from Millville, New Jersey, which is roughly an hour away from Philadelphia. Trout grew up a Phillies fan and is commonly seen at Eagles games during the baseball offseason. It made sense to think Trout would test free agency and come back home. The Angels have made the playoffs once during Trout’s career: 2014, when they were swept out of the ALDS in three games by the Royals. The club has averaged an 84-78 record during Trout’s career. The Phillies are on the come-up. Why would Trout want to hang around the Angels, mired in mediocrity?

Trout, however, has been deeply invested in the Angels’ future. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman tweeted, “Something that stood out to me while in #Angels camp: how invested Trout was in LAA’s improving farm system. Eppler told me Trout would sometimes call and ask if he had noticed something in a minor league boxscore. To me a sign he was in with LAA’s future.” What are the chances that Bryant and Acuña, for example, share a similar feeling of devotion to their respective teams after having their service time shamelessly manipulated?

One benefit of not treating players as disposable labor is loyalty, a feeling of “we’re in this together.” The Angels didn’t jerk Trout around like teams have done with so many other top prospects. They willingly gave a pre-arb Trout a raise when they could have nickel-and-dimed him to save $450,000 in 2014. They invested nearly $150 million in him as a 22-year-old. That paid dividends down the road, as Trout is now so invested in the Angels’ success that he has foregone a chance at free agency, when he possibly could have become baseball’s first half-billion-dollar man. Having Trout secured at a relative bargain through the 2030 season, and currently holding players like Shohei Ohtani and top prospects like Jo Adell, makes the Angels an attractive landing spot for free agents, international and domestic alike. Current players will want to stay in Anaheim. Angels fans will get to see one of the best baseball players of all time in an Angels uniform until his late-30’s. He will go into the Hall of Fame wearing an Angels cap. The Angels will have another decade of Trout drawing fans to TV broadcasts as well as Angels Stadium where they’ll spend money on concessions, t-shirts, and jerseys. Trout is a once-in-a-lifetime player, but other teams should take note: treating your players with dignity and respect may cost a few extra bucks up front, but the long-term gains can be bountiful.