Mike Trout: The 400 Million Dollar Man?
by Joe Tevelowitz, AngelsWin.com Columnist -
At the halfway point between the end of the World Series and the start of Spring Training, now is as good of a time as any to look at the realistic possibility that Mike Trout becomes the first 400 Million Dollar Man in Major League Baseball. After the Yankees got a slap on the wrist for even mentioning the value of giving a long-term contract to Mike Trout, discussing the matter purely hypothetically in comparison to not giving the decade deal to Robinson Cano, the fear of missing out on a career of Trout has to at least be in the pit of every Angels fan's stomach.
It's not every day the Angels bring a future Hall of Famer up through their system or that people are willing to speak of a guy who has only played two full seasons as a future Hall of Famer. However, after two seasons that had Mike Trout being mentioned in the same breath as Mickey Mantle and nearly pulling off the Rookie of the Year/MVP double dose that has only been accomplished by Ichiro and Fred Lynn, predicting Trout's plaque in Cooperstown isn't insane. However, the 400 million dollar question is: what hat will be on that plaque.
It's reasonable to suggest that most Angels fans would jump at the chance to lock up the Face of the Franchise (and maybe soon-to-be face of the league) for as many years as humanly possible. To do so will likely require a contract that even A-Rod in his prime was never offered. And A-Rod provides an important starting point in looking at the pros and cons of giving a baseball player a contract that would eclipse the GDP of an island nation, and ostensibly tie the fortunes of a team to the relative continued or predicted success of one player.
Alex Rodriguez left the Seattle Mariners for the Texas Rangers not because of any ties to the Texas region, any belief in the Rangers ability to contend, or any feelings of wanting to build something new away from rainy days of Seattle. Rodriguez left for a $252 million dollar offer that was over 25% more than the deal received by his closest shortstop contemporary, Derek Jeter, that same year. As ridiculous as it might seem in hindsight for Rodriguez to be valued so much higher than Jeter, Alex Rodriguez's accomplishments to that point and potential were enough for a team to put it all on the line to bring him in. In signing A-Rod, the Rangers weren't just banking on a guy who, in his first full season, recorded the highest batting average for a right-hander since DiMaggio to go with 36 home runs and 123 RBIs. Nor were they paying for the third member of the 40-40 club. Or even for the kid who took the Mariners to the ALCS, hitting over .400 in the playoffs, the season after the Mariners dealt Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey, Jr. to give Rodriguez the proverbial mantle as the team's superstar and foundation.
What the Rangers did by offering over a quarter of a billion dollars to a guy playing one of the most demanding positions in baseball was bank on the fact that Alex Rodriguez could change the entire perception of a team and transform the Rangers from a team with Texas as their prefix to THE Team of Texas. And while Rodriguez was offensively great in Texas (200 hits and 50 home runs his first season, leading the league in home runs, RBIs and total bases his second, and winning his first MVP during his third year), the Rangers finished last in the West each year. As exciting as A-Rod was offensively, the team sucked with him, and that record of losing made the Rangers decide he wasn't worth the investment. And so, the New York Yankees, everyone's least favorite rich uncle, stepped in, picking up A-Rod and his enormous deal, aside from the $67 million Texas paid to send the shortstop/future third baseman away. And the Yankees, with their media deals and winning obsessed owner, would end up giving Rodriguez a new deal seven years later that eclipsed even that which A-Rod received from the Rangers, and would basically keep him in pinstripes past a point when anyone not named Julio Franco should still be playing baseball.
The interesting thing about Rodriguez is what happened to the teams he left. After watching the soon-to-be-deemed A-Fraud depart for Texas, the Mariners went on to win an American League record 116 games, thanks in large part to Ichiro's arrival, but also to an overall mindset change in a franchise that, after losing their three biggest stars in a three-year span, committed to team baseball and made the playoffs in consecutive years for the first (and only) time in the franchise history. The Rangers, upon releasing the Alex albatross into the Hudson, won 18 more games than the previous season. You would think losing a player deemed to be worthy of the largest contract in all of sports would hurt a team. However, the Angels know from personal experience, this is not always the case.
The Angels have lost out on big free agents before. The team has even saw players they thought would stay with the team move on for greener, dollar-wise, pastures. However, Arte Moreno's purchase of the team has also accompanied some of the greatest free agent signings in team history, specifically Vlad Guerrero in 2004 and Albert Pujols prior to the 2012 season. The Pujols signing in particular represents the Angels taking aim at being not just a team with Los Angeles now stuck on in front of their name, but becoming THE team of Los Angeles. What better way to do that, then by signing a guy considered one of, if not the greatest hitter of his generation, and one of the few last great sluggers untainted by the brush of performance enhancers. And after helping the Cardinals to the World Series during his last season in St. Louis, the Angels could find comfort in bringing a proven winner to their team.
Of course, Pujols' arrival, while exciting, delivered only three more wins than the previous year. The Cardinals were not deterred by the departure of their greatest player since Stan Musial, making it to game 7 of the NLCS that season and returning to the World Series the following season. Obviously comparing the relative success of one team with another and basing it just on the juxtaposition of just one player is unfair, and not really that instructive. However, two years into a deal that follows only the two A-Rod contracts as the largest in baseball history, the Angels no longer see Albert Pujols as the definitive face of the franchise, nor the guy who could remake the entire identity of the squad. That mantle has passed to the fresh-faced kid from New Jersey, who could conceivably get a deal worth more than the 10 year Pujols contract and 5 year Josh Hamilton deal, combined.
So, is Mike Trout worth it? If asked to do it again, would the Rangers pay $252 million for A-Rod, knowing they would end up paying just to trade him away after three years? Would the Yankees have extended Rodriguez at $275 million on a deal they're now secretly hoping that steroid accusations and baseball suspensions will allow them to get out from under? Would the Angels risk $240 million on a 32 year old who's consistency to that point was only setting them up for massive disappointment upon the first signs of injury? The answer to all three is yes, because even if the results have shown that risk often outweighs reward, the success of the team, and a player's deal, can never be just directly tied to wins or losses. Instead, in signing a Rodriguez, Pujols or Trout, teams are not simply banking on a leader to take them to a title, but instead a player to market and a legacy that becomes commodity. The Rangers lost a lot of games, and money, on the Rodriguez deal, but the chance to sign a guy who might become THE GREATEST BASEBALL PLAYER OF ALL-TIME was too big to pass up. It's the same reason why the Yankees worked to give a raise to that same player, and tied in bonuses related to the eventual breaking of records -- never a sure thing, but too much of a profitable opportunity to pass up. In locking up Pujols for a decade, even knowing that the final years of that deal may be voided by retirement, the Angels were taking a stab in bringing in a sure-fire Hall of Famer who's future successes in the overall spectrum of baseball history would then be tied to the Angels brand.
The brand is why Mike Trout is now and, barring an injury or decision to retire from baseball and replace Paul Walker in the Fast and Furious 7, will continue to be worth an investment even exceeding $400 million. There's no guarantee that any of Trout's future years will be as dynamic as his first two, but the potential is there that those future years could reach a level of greatness that even Pujols or Rodriguez never achieved. More than that, Trout has the potential to be the type of player that clubs not only build around on the field, but off of it. The Los Angeles Lakers giving an older and injured Kobe Bryant nearly $50 million for two years might not make a lot of sense in terms of finding the right places to get the team another title. However, investing in the Kobe brand, and tying it eternally to the Lakers, will pay dividends far beyond any players' career.
As of now, no player has decided to have the Angels cap on their Hall of Fame plaque. When Pujols enters, even if the Angels win seven titles in the next eight years and Pujols breaks every record imaginable under the lights of The Big A, he will enter the Hall as a Cardinal. Maybe Vlad Guerrero gets in and becomes the first marked Halo in the Hall. Yet, even he doesn't capture the possibilities that Mike Trout embodies. It's dangerous to make a large investment in any single player, particularly in a sport where one player's overall greatness cannot lift an entire team, unlike the way a dominant center in the NBA or game-changing quarterback in the NFL can. However, in a day and age where media money is as important to a baseball team's structure and finances as a winning season, and a time where so many great players fell from their positions on high due to accusations of cutting corners to take a shot at revered numbers, Mike Trout, the entity and the player, represents hope, as much for the league as for the team.
One team will make a ridiculous investment in him soon enough. At some point during the length of that contract, people will question whether or not he was worth it. Every losing season will raise questions of whether or not tying up so much money in one guy is prudent. In the end though, potential and possibility trump prudence. Somebody is going to pay a great deal to market and make money off that potential. And even with all the downside and past lessons learned, I sure hope that team is the Angels.