MLB Hot Stove: Why a Mike Trout free agent bidding war could've topped $600M
Trout would have been a free agent this offseason had he not signed his contract extension
For the first time in his six full MLB seasons, Mike Trout did not finish first or second in the AL MVP voting this year. , almost certainly as a result of the thumb injury that sidelined him nearly two months this summer.
Trout, who is still only 26, authored a .306/.446/.629 batting line with 33 home runs and 22 steals in 114 games around the thumb injury. He led all hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title in OPS (1.071) and adjusted OPS+ (187). It was, aside from the injury, a typical Trout season. He was brilliant again.
A little less than four years ago the Angels wisely signed Trout to a six-year contract extension worth $144.5 million that will keep him in Anaheim through the 2020 season. Had he not signed that contract, Trout would have become a free agent this offseason. Yes. Right now. Trout could've been out on the open market fielding offers from all 30 teams right now.
Never will I question a young player signing an early-career extension. I completely understand wanting financial security. Trout, like many others, traded his maximum earning potential for that security. He's set for life.
Had he not signed that deal, he would've been looking at a record-smashing contract this winter. I'm sure some part of him wonders what could have been.
Because he's still so young and so outrageously talented and productive, it's fun to imagine what a free-agent bidding war for Trout would've looked like this offseason. Like I said, all 30 teams would've inquired. Only a few would have had a realistic chance to land him, however. Here's how I would break down the suitors had Trout become a free agent this winter as originally scheduled.
These teams figure to have been the most serious bidders for Trout. They're contenders and they have money to spend, and a history of spending it. This tier is much longer than I expected. It's 12 teams deep.
Los Angeles Angels
We can't rule out a return to the Angels, right? They're very willing to pay top dollar to get the player they want, as Albert Pujols knows, and losing Trout would be a devastating blow to the franchise. Might as well rip it all down and start over if he leaves. There's also something to be said for the allure of spending your entire career with one team. The Angels are the only pro organization Trout has ever known, after all.
Is there a better sales pitch than "We just won the World Series and you would get to hit second between George Springer and Jose Altuve?" I don't think so. At some point the Astros will have to think about paying their own players, but with Springer and Altuve and Carlos Correa and others making relative peanuts, there is no better time to go all-in for Trout to try to win again in 2018 (and '19).
St. Louis Cardinals
Although the Cardinals have more outfielders (Dexter Fowler, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty) than outfield spots, you make room for a guy like Trout. St. Louis hasn't been to the postseason in two years or won a postseason series in four years. The Yadier Molina/Matt Carpenter offensive core is getting up there in age too. Trout would be a big lift as the team tries to get back to October.
Gosh, could you imagine if the Cubs added Trout to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo? Their center field job is wide open too. I mean, Albert Almora is a nice player, but Chicago wouldn't let him stand in the way of signing Trout. The Cubbies have a ton of money -- the financial windfall from their 2016 World Series win has been estimated at $1 billion (that's billion with a "b") -- and would be able to entice Trout with a lineup full of a similarly aged stars.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Sorry Angels, but the Dodgers are the only team in baseball that could offer Trout the chance to stay in Southern California and play for a World Series contender right away. Opening a spot in the outfield will be a piece of cake and of course the Dodgers have gobs of money. They would have been at the very front of the line had Trout become a free agent.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants need an outfielder -- they need three outfielders, really -- and they have shown a willingness to spend. This past season was a major disappointment, no doubt about that, but the team's leadership seems to consider 2017 an anomaly. They believe they can contend in 2018. Trout would be a massive upgrade and also help the team win while Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey are still in their primes.
Surprised? You shouldn't be. The Mariners are desperate to end Robinson Cano can testify to that. Also, Seattle needs a center fielder. How convenient is that? Would Seattle have been the front-runner for Trout? No. But it would've been silly to rule the Mariners out as a landing spot. Desperation can lead to teams doing crazy things.and they have money to spend.
Speaking of desperate, the 2018 season very well might be the last chance for the Nationals to win with this core. Both Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy will be free agents next offseason, plus Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer are in their primes right now, but won't be forever. This is Washington's best chance to win. Right now, with Harper and Murphy and Strasburg and Scherzer all under contract and at the peak of their abilities. An all-in push to sign Trout to improve their 2018 (and beyond) chances would have been a serious consideration, at the very least.
Yes, the Phillies. They are rebuilding and couldn't offer Trout a chance to contend for a World Series title in 2018, but they are his hometown team. Trout is from South Jersey and he still lives there in the offseason. He's a regular at Philadelphia Eagles home games.
The Phillies have lots of money to spend -- they have only $5.85 million on the books for 2018 at the moment -- and they can offer a Trout a chance to play close to home. The whole non-contender thing would be an issue, however. Make no mistake though, the Phillies would have the wherewithal to make a monster contract offer, and the desire to play close to home can be very real for some players.
Stealing Trout away from the AL West rival Angels would be a dream scenario for the Rangers. The Rangers can surely make room for Trout in the budget, especially with insurance covering much of Prince Fielder's contract, and opening an outfield spot would be a piece of cake. I get the sense there is still some trepidation about monster contracts in Texas after the Alex Rodriguez deal, but as long as the front office and ownership don't feel it, it doesn't matter.
Boston Red Sox
A few days ago president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told reporters, including Chad Jennings of the Boston Herald, that the luxury tax is not a concern right now, so payroll is not an issue. Are the Red Sox willing to displace one of their young outfielders (Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi) to make room for Trout? Never doubt Dombrowski's willingness to do something big. They could slide Hanley Ramirez to first base full-time and rotate the four outfielders in the three outfield spots and DH.
New York Yankees
The Yankees insist they will get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold in 2018. Are they so serious about that plan that they would pass on Trout? I highly doubt it. When you have a chance to use only money (New York's greatest resource) to add Trout to Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, you do it. Even with the crowded outfield -- Trout would join Judge, Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Aaron Hicks and Clint Frazier as outfield options -- I think the Yankees would be hard after Trout. You make room for him.
Other potential suitors
These clubs would've had a chance to sign Trout, though their odds aren't quite as good as the teams in the previous tier. Surprises happen though. I wouldn't rule these teams out of the Trout sweepstakes.
Toronto Blue Jays
Rogers Communications, the entity that owns the Blue Jays, surely has money to make Trout a competitive offer even though they've yet to really throw that money around in free agency. Toronto itself is massive and fans have shown they'll pack the ballpark when the Jays are good. The financials shouldn't be an issue, in theory. The question is whether Trout wants to join a team that went 76-86 in 2017, especially since their window appears to be closing, not opening.
Yes, they have the money. The Zack Greinke contract left no doubt about that. The D-Backs would try to sell Trout on the idea of playing alongside Paul Goldschmidt for a team that won 93 games in 2017, and has a chance to be even better in 2018. Phoenix is a pretty great place to live too, as long as you don't mind the summer heat.
New York Mets
At some point the Mets will spend like a big-market team again, right? The Mets have an obvious opening in center field and they should be doing all they can to win right now, while their power rotation is still together and affordable. I would like to think even the Wilpons would be on board with paying big to land a franchise player like Trout. The fact we can't guarantee that is why they're in this tier, and not the previous tier.
The Rockies have a history of handing out huge contracts. Remember the Mike Hampton contract? Or the Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki contracts? The Rockies will spend money. Trout would get to sock dingers in Coors Field, hit between MVP candidates Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado and join a team that might be on the cusp of breaking out as a legitimate World Series contender. A sneaky good fit, they would be.
These six teams would have to overcome long odds to sign Trout. Either they have no history of spending big in free agency, or because of other extenuating circumstances.
The front office is in disarray right now -- MLB is likely to substantially penalize the Braves in the coming weeks. The Braves did just open a new ballpark, so it stands to reason they have some money to spend, by why go to a rebuilding team with the front office such a mess?-- and
Clearly a team on the rise, and even with top prospect Lewis Brinson ready to take over center field, you don't pass up a chance to sign a guy like Trout. The question is whether the Brewers could afford him. They did make a nine-figure offer to CC Sabathia back in the day, though the offer wasn't large enough to warrant serious consideration given what else was out there. If Milwaukee could make it work financially, gosh, they would be quite a fit for Trout.
On one hand, the Indians are a legitimate World Series contender whose window won't get any more open than it is right now. On the other hand, the Indians are not a big payroll team. Edwin Encarnacion's market to collapse before joining the fray. Maybe they could convince Trout to take a high-salary one-year contract ($50 million?)? I don't see it. The financials would've been a very real obstacle for Cleveland.and don't seem to have the ability to go much higher. They had to wait for
If the O's were to give out a massive contract this offseason, it would go to Manny Machado, not Trout. Baltimore went 75-87 this year and its pitching is a mess. Even if the Orioles could make it work financially, it's hard to think Trout would seriously consider joining this team given the other available options.
One thing we know for sure is that the Tigers will spend money when they deem it appropriate or necessary. Paying Trout isn't the problem. The team's 64-98 record in 2017 and their status as a deep rebuilder is. Unless the Tigers make the largest offer and Trout's top priority is money, it's hard to see a fit here. It wouldn't be unprecedented for the game's best player to sign with a last-place team as a free agent -- A-Rod did it when he signed with the Rangers -- but I wouldn't expect it.
The Byron Buxton-Eddie Rosario-Max Kepler outfield is young and exciting, but I don't think Minnesota would let any of those guys stand in the way of signing Trout. The Twins are a team on the rise too. They shocked the world and went to the postseason this season. The issue here is money. Could the Twins afford Trout? The Joe Mauer deal shows they can spend big on occasion. Would they really be able to win a bidding war for Trout though?
Never say never ... but, never. These teams would've had basically zero chance to sign Trout had he become a free agent this winter.
Can't afford him, the ballpark situation is terrible and they've finished in last place the past three years. Other than that, the A's have a great chance to land Trout!
The Marlins are probably going to trade Giancarlo Stanton, their homegrown megastar with a massive contract, at some point this offseason. They're not spending what it takes to land Trout.
San Diego Padres
San Diego sure is beautiful, and the farm system is loaded, but there's not much for Trout here. The team isn't very good and they don't figure to blow him away financially.
Do we have any reason to believe the Pirates would pay what it takes to sign even a mid-range free agent? We really don't. The largest contract in franchise history is still Jason Kendall's six-year, $60 million deal, which he signed in 2001. Yeesh. Trout is not happening.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays can't afford Trout and the ballpark situation is suboptimal, putting it nicely. Maybe the Rays would get involved to try to drive up the price for the Yankees and Red Sox?
They're hamstrung financially as it is by the Joey Votto contract, and Votto is great. Add in the whole rebuilding thing and it's hard to see Trout agreeing to head to the Queen City.
Kansas City Royals
Basically their entire core hit free agency this winter. Even if they were to sign Trout, how do they field a competitive team around him next year?
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox are the hardest of hard-tanking teams right now. Adding Trout would speed up the rebuilding process, for sure. Unfortunately for them, the White Sox are the only the second-most desirable free-agent destination in their city.
For all intents and purposes, Trout's market would have boiled down to the 12 teams in the first tier. I suppose you can't rule out the Blue Jays or Braves or Brewers coming in with a monster offer, though it does seem unlikely given where things stand right now. And, realistically, it wouldn't be long before the superpowers turned this into a five-team race -- the Cubs, Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees and Angels. Those five clubs would have been the most serious bidders for Trout.
As for the contract itself, it no doubt would have been a record smasher. When A-Rod signed his 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers in January 2001, it was exactly double the largest pro sports contract at the time (Kevin Garnett's $126 million deal with the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves). Like A-Rod then, Trout is a superstar up-the-middle player who hit free agency in his mid-20s. The parallels are obvious.
MLB's current largest contract is Stanton's massive 13-year, $325 million contract with the Marlins. Trout doubling that like A-Rod doubled Garnett's deal seems insane, but don't dismiss the possibility. Here are the five largest contracts by average annual value right now:
- Zack Greinke, D-Backs: $34.42 million
- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: $31 million
- David Price, Red Sox: $31 million
- Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: $30.71 million
- Max Scherzer, Nationals: $30 million
Elite players are getting $30 million per season, and keep in mind four of those five players are pitchers, and pitchers generally receive smaller contracts than their position player brethren because of the inherent injury risk. There is not a doubt in my mind Trout would clear $40 million per year had he become a free agent this winter. It's entirely possible he would get $45 million per year. Per FanGraphs, Trout's worst full season was worth $54.9 million on the open market.
Since he is only 26, Trout could push for a contract that takes him to his 40th birthday. A 14-year deal worth $40 million per season works out to $560 million in total salary. Add in a signing bonus and awards bonuses and the buyout of a potential option year, and it wouldn't be difficult for Trout to become the first $600 million player in history, never mind the first $400 million or $500 million player.
Of course, a straight 14-year contract would never happen. There would be opt-out clauses along the way, likely several. Trout and his representatives could push for an opt-out after Years 3, 6 and 9, for example. The team could come back and offer one after Year 6 only. A compromise could be an opt-out after Years 4 and 8. That way the team gets Trout for at least four years, and he still would have the opportunity to test free agency again at age 30.
Free agents like Trout, the best player in the world who is only 26, don't just set contract records. They crush them. Trout and his agent wouldn't push to beat Stanton's record deal by $1 million or so. They would want to drop jaws and they almost certainly would've been able to. Think about the teams most likely to be involved in the bidding: Angels, Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, Yankees. The bidding war would be unlike anything we've seen before.
While a $600 million contract feels unlikely, I would not have completely ruled out the possibility had Trout indeed become a free agent this offseason. A $400 million contract would've been a certainty. Even a $500 million deal feels likely to me. Trout is that good, that young and would have been that in demand. And, of course, all the right teams would be involved. When you have the Dodgers bidding against the Yankees and the Cubs ... well, that's how contract records get shattered.
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