Baseball’s best player (maybe ever) will sign baseball’s biggest contract, and it’s the rare deal that should make everyone happy. Mike Trout gets paid according to his otherworldly talents. The Los Angeles Angels keep their franchise player without any drama. The players union and agents everywhere have a new ceiling on contracts. And Major League Baseball gets a data point for its dubious case that free agency isn’t broken. What could go wrong?
Trout’s new contract with the Angels, as reported by Jeff Passan of ESPN, is for $430 million over 12 years. It replaces the remaining two years and $66.4 million Trout had on his current deal and adds another decade at a higher rate. The deal sets records for the largest total contract and highest annual value. (The deal is still being finalized, but current reporting suggests it will not include any opt-outs.)
While the numbers here are astronomical, they represent fair value for Trout’s services. The market value of a win above replacement is a moving target, but if we use a reasonable estimate of $7 million per win, we can approximate his value. According to Fangraphs, Trout was worth nearly 10 wins over a replacement-level player in 2018. That means he provided roughly $70 million in additional value. By the most basic of calculations, Trout needs about 61 WAR over the course of his deal to be worth $430 million. That’s doable. He’s accrued 64.9 WAR so far in his career—and he’s only 27. No player has done so much by his age. With three more Trout-like seasons, he’ll be nearly halfway to earning his massive deal with nine years left on the contract.
Trout will not be a free agent until he’s 39, and after the last two offseasons, that fact will make the players union and MLB breathe easier. The 2017–18 offseason saw free agent values collapse, particularly for the “middle class” of solid veterans. The big names still ended up with solid contracts, but some had to wait until the season had nearly started. The trend continued this offseason. Superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper eventually got their $300 million deals—Harper’s $330 million deal briefly held the record for largest in MLB history—but it took until spring training. Two of the top pitchers on the market, Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel, remain unsigned. Tensions between the players union and MLB are high, but now neither has to worry over a nightmare scenario in which the game’s best player is a grumbling free agent on opening day two years from now.
The Angels no longer have to fear the leering eyes of the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, and every other team that was ready to make a play for Trout’s services following the 2020 season. Their franchise player may never wear another jersey. The team can now tie its brand to Trout the way the Orioles did with Cal Ripken Jr. and the Yankees did with Derek Jeter. Those two players are remembered differently. Ripken famously showed up to work every day, played in a mind-boggling 2,632 consecutive games, and delivered excellent results—but he made the playoffs only three times. Jeter is known as much for the teams he led as for his individual accomplishments. He captained the Yankees to 16 playoff appearances and five World Series victories in his career. To date, Trout’s career has been more Ripken than Jeter, which is to say that the Angels have been more Orioles than Yankees. Whether that changes will shape how this contract plays out.
Trout has yet to win a playoff game, and one way Tuesday’s deal goes bad is if baseball’s transcendent player spends his prime watching October baseball. Now that the Angels have a long-term commitment from Trout, the question is: Can they put a ring on it? The team has acquired plenty of talent over the past few years in search of Trout’s first playoff win, including Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, Zack Cozart, and two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani. But they don’t have much else. The lineup is filled out with role players, and the rotation and bullpen are more interesting than intimidating. This season, projection systems see Los Angeles in a scrum for the last playoff spot with the Oakland A’s, Tampa Bay Rays, and Minnesota Twins. Like every team with a low-80s win projection, the Angels could be a playoff team or a trade deadline seller.
The Angels also currently employ the most glaring example of how huge deals can go bad. Albert Pujols still has three years and $87 million remaining on the 10-year, $240 million contract he signed before the 2012 season. At the time, Pujols was the undisputed best player in baseball. Since then, he has gone from good to adequate to below-replacement level. Were he a free agent this year, he likely would have signed a minor league deal. Pujols is an imperfect comparison for Trout, though, because he was four years older when he signed his deal. As a first baseman, Pujols also had nowhere to go on defense as he became less mobile. Trout, still a good center fielder, can move to an outfield corner as he slows down, and eventually first base or designated hitter if needed. This won’t be the Pujols deal.
It may, however, be the A-Rod deal. Alex Rodriguez was another generational talent who contributed as a monstrous hitter and a plus defender. A-Rod held up his end of the bargain on the 10-year, $252 million deal he signed with the Texas Rangers heading into 2001, finishing sixth, second, and first in MVP voting in his first three years of the contract, but it wasn’t enough to propel the Rangers out of last place. After three years, the team traded Rodriguez to the Yankees and retooled around a set of young players, eventually reaching the World Series in 2010 and 2011.
It’s easy to imagine the Angels ending up in a similar situation in three years. They would be free of most of their current free-agent deals, but with a middling farm system, it’s not clear what kind of core they would have to build around. If a rebuild seems like the wise choice, might they quietly inquire if anyone is interested in the last $300 million of Trout’s deal? That could happen. Trout could also break a leg with an ill-timed sneeze and never return to his current level of play. He could grow discontent with the team and start making snarky remarks in the press. He could lose his superpowers when he turns 30. A lot can go wrong with a $430 million deal. Every contract is a gamble, and this is the biggest one in the history of professional sports.
But Trout is uniquely worthy of such a risk. He is the clear best player in baseball, and he might still be improving. Last year was probably his best yet on offense. Except for an injury-shortened 2017, he’s placed first or second in the AL MVP voting every year he’s been in the big leagues. Trout will likely hold up his end of this massive deal. Now it is up to the Angels to do the same.