Mike Trout and a Relative Pittance

When’s the last time you looked up a player’s pre-arbitration salary figures? Is the answer “never”? The answer is probably “never”. Before a player is arbitration-eligible, he makes almost nothing, sticking in the realm of six figures. We think about salaries when salaries get bigger, because that’s when they start to matter for real. We almost never end up talking about a pre-arbitration contract, so it should tell you something that we’re talking about one now.

Presumably, you’ve heard. Over the weekend, it was announced that Mike Trout had his contract renewed for 2013. After making the minimum in 2012, Trout had his salary bumped all the way up to $510,000 for 2013, just $20,000 above the new league minimum. All Trout was a year ago was the best player in the world, and for all we know the universe, and the fact he didn’t get a bigger raise has drawn a statement from his agent:

“During the process, on behalf of Mike, I asked only that the Angels compensate Mike fairly for his historic 2012 season, given his service time. In my opinion, this contract falls well short of a ‘fair’ contract, and I have voiced this to the Angels throughout the process.

“The $510,000 salary was not the result of a negotiated compromise between Mike and the Angels. Because Mike has less than three years of major league service and has not yet reached arbitration, the Angels have the right under the [collective bargaining agreement] to unilaterally impose a salary upon Mike, and they chose to do that today.

“The renewal of Mike’s contract will put an end of this discussion. As when he learned he would not be the team’s primary center fielder for the upcoming season, Mike will put the disappointment behind him and focus on helping the Angels reach their goal of winning the 2013 World Series.”

There’s important information in there. Notably, the Angels were well within their rights to do this. Pre-arbitration contracts are entirely up to the teams, so the players and the players’ agents have no leverage. I shouldn’t say they have no leverage — they can threaten to make things messy in the future, I suppose — but they don’t have much leverage. The teams, by and large, can do as they please.

Trout, publicly, has shrugged this off and said all the right things, like he always has. Over recent history, Rookies of the Year have, on average, gotten bigger raises than Trout just did, by quite a bit. Yet we’re still talking about six-figure deals, so none of them truly struck it rich. It’s interesting that Trout’s agent notes disappointment over playing the corner outfield; that didn’t slip into the statement by accident, as Trout’s agent wants people to know that his client is making some sacrifices. He wants people to know his client is dedicated to the Angels, even as people question the Angels’ dedication to Mike Trout.

There are a couple issues here. One, people aren’t likely to see this contract renewal as being fair. Some people will reach a conclusion just looking at Trout’s salary and Vernon Wells‘ salary. No pre-arbitration contract is fair, at least when compared to post-arbitration contracts. Even doubling Trout’s salary would’ve left him shy of $1 million. Things are different with these contracts.

The bigger issue is this raises concern over bitterness. Critics don’t understand why the Angels would risk disappointing their greatest player when they could’ve easily chipped in a little more cash without breaking a sweat. It’s not unlike what people say when a team takes a player to arbitration — things can get ugly in there. Why allow things to get ugly when you’re talking about such insignificant differences most of the time? Why wouldn’t the Angels give Trout a few extra hundred thousand dollars, just to make sure things didn’t get to where things have gotten now?

From the outside, I don’t get it. I don’t get why the Angels would settle on $510,000 instead of $610,000 or $710,000 or $810,000. The money means almost nothing to them, and they don’t have to worry about setting a precedent, because Mike Trout was unprecedented. The upside here is somewhat insignificant savings. The downside involves the future of Mike Trout as an Angel. Yet, from the outside, I don’t know what took place on the inside, and it’s not like the Angels wouldn’t have considered the downsides before renewing the contract at these terms. The Angels chose this number for a reason, they gave Trout a minimal raise for a reason, and we don’t know what those reasons might be. Those people aren’t idiots.

But this is now at least partially playing out in public. If nothing else, this isn’t good for PR, as people are going to see the Angels as uncharacteristically pinching pennies. This reflects somewhat poorly on the front office, and I’m reminded of Torii Hunter saying he felt misled by the Angels when they said they didn’t have much money shortly before they signed Josh Hamilton to a mega-contract. It’s possible the Angels’ front office needs to work on its tact.

But, okay, let’s talk about the downside. Right now, Mike Trout is going to be underpaid. Trout was always going to be underpaid in 2013, and 2014, and 2015 and so on, but he probably should be making more than he will. Maybe this’ll motivate him. Maybe he doesn’t need any extra motivation, since he’s a pretty motivated player.

Given who Mike Trout is as a player, the general message of the argument is “why wouldn’t the Angels just do whatever they can to keep Mike Trout happy?” It certainly wouldn’t be in the Angels’ best interests to piss Mike Trout off, but it’s worth considering where this falls on the scale:

(1) The Angels don’t provide Mike Trout’s preferred flavor of Vitamin Water in the clubhouse after games. Why wouldn’t the Angels just do whatever they can to keep Mike Trout happy?

(2) The Angels told Mike Trout they can’t stand his style of play and they took down all the posters of him around the stadium and whenever he comes up to the plate the scoreboard has his name misspelled and the front office floats dark rumors about Trout’s personal life away from the ballpark. Why wouldn’t the Angels just do whatever they can to keep Mike Trout happy?

One means almost nothing with regard to the future relationship between Trout and the Angels. At the other end of the scale, things are damaged to the point where there might well not be a future relationship between Trout and the Angels. Is the current matter something significant, or something far less significant?

We don’t know what’s actually going on within Trout’s head, of course. Most players in or around his position are given bigger raises. Many of the other players are Marlins. Prince Fielder wasn’t happy one year when he had his contract renewed by the Brewers. He got a far bigger raise than Trout just did, after an inferior season. Fielder isn’t a Brewer anymore. But then, Fielder’s agent is Scott Boras, and Fielder and the Brewers did agree to one multi-year contract that bought out a couple years of arbitration eligibility.

I think it’s worth considering the case of Jered Weaver. Weaver’s also represented by Boras, and when Weaver was drafted by the Angels, negotiations went poorly for quite some time. Eventually, Weaver signed, and he was outstanding in the majors in 2006. In 2007, his contract was renewed for just barely over the league minimum. That didn’t stop Weaver from eventually signing a long-term contract extension with the Angels for less than he probably deserved. Weaver gave the Angels a clear hometown discount, despite how things had gone years before. Any awkward or difficult negotiations had long been forgotten.

How it was with Weaver might not be how it is with Trout, because Weaver’s a local boy, after all. But the Angels are going to surround Trout with a quality, contending roster, and the Angels clearly aren’t opposed to spending. At some point, the Angels are going to engage Trout’s representation in long-term contract extension talks. Trout will not be exposed to the free-agent market. He doesn’t stand to become a free agent until after the 2017 season.

A perceived slight now is unlikely to affect negotiations down the road. Trout’s agent will be concerned with trying to land a fair deal, and though the agent could conceivably threaten to allow Trout to proceed to free agency, that wouldn’t come without its risk, as Trout could get hurt or under-perform. The Angels would be offering security, and of course those talks would throw around figures that blow Trout’s current salary figures out of the water. A matter of a few hundred thousand dollars now probably isn’t going to meaningfully change talks about tens of millions of dollars, or even hundreds of millions of dollars in time. What Trout and his agent will want is a fair deal. Even if Trout had gotten a bigger raise now, they’d still want that same fair deal. They’ll negotiate with the Angels until or unless such a fair deal is agreed to.

The downside here is that, later on, Trout might be slightly less willing to re-sign with the Angels. But he won’t be a free agent, so if the Angels offer acceptable terms, Trout will take them. Trout wouldn’t settle for lower terms just because the Angels gave him a bigger raise in his second season. As we’ve learned from the Jered Weaver example, this will in no way prevent Trout and the Angels from falling in love with one another. This is most probably just a minor thing that won’t affect Trout’s gameplay or mindset. Trout’s agent is free to express his disapproval, but when the Angels come calling and start talking about eight or nine or ten years, Trout’s agent is Trout’s agent, and his responsibility is to get Trout a fair contract. There won’t be a lot of room for emotion, if by that point anyone is in any way still emotional.

This is a blip. A perplexing blip, to be sure — this all could’ve been avoided entirely with a handful of extra cash — but any negative sentiment is likely to be fleeting, ephemeral. The Angels know what Mike Trout means to them, and the Angels will have plenty of opportunities to show Trout just how highly he’s valued. When it comes time to talk long-term contract, what’s going to matter isn’t Mike Trout’s year-two salary. What’s going to matter is Mike Trout, and the Angels and Trout’s agent both know that Mike Trout is amazing.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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