Mike Trout’s Contract and the Needless Uproar

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There’s been an absurd uproar and reaction of shock that the Angels chose to renew Mike Trout‘s contract for $510,000. This is strange considering that the constant storyline surrounding athletes is how overpaid they are. For the most part, it has little to do with their performance. Players who are at the top of the baseball pay scale like Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Joey Votto and Felix Hernandez are the examples given of players who are either not going to fulfill their paychecks with extended production into their late 30s or are considered anomalies and accused of PED use if they do perform.

In the realm of public perception, they can’t win. Of course they win in their bank account, but through no fault of their own, no matter what they do, it’s not going to be good enough.

Pujols’s contract is called a backend nightmare because he’s going to be paid $59 million two seasons after his 40th birthday.

A-Rod is breaking down physically, has $114 million due him with the very real possibility that the Yankees will eventually cut their losses of him and his constant sideshow of embarrassing drama, paying him to leave. They won’t even have the benefit of the extra income they thought they, as an organization, would accrue as A-Rod broke home run records. He probably won’t break the records at all and if he does, they’re sullied beyond all recognition due to his admitted PED use and recent allegations that their use has been ongoing.

Votto will be 30 in September and his 10-year, $225 million deal doesn’t kick in until 2014. He’ll be paid $25 million annually from age 35-39 and $20 million at 40. Plus Votto’s playing for a mid-market club, the Cincinnati Reds, for whom that contract might preclude them from putting commensurate talent around him.

Hernandez is a pitcher whose prematurely announced contract was put in jeopardy by red flags found in his elbow during his physical. By the time the contract news had been strategically leaked, neither he nor the Mariners could back out and protective language was inserted to shield the Mariners if he gets hurt.

Those who take down-the-line contracts to remain in their current venue are so rare that it’s a worldwide stunner when they make the decision that they don’t need to be the highest paid player in the world and that $85 million can buy just as much stuff as $200 million. Jered Weaver and Evan Longoria are players who have made that choice. They’re a rarity.

No matter where you stand on the issue of athletes’ pay, the way baseball functions can be manipulated to advantage the player, the club, or they can come to an agreement to share the risk with a preemptive, long-term deal. Once a player has exhausted his amateur eligibility, he’s at the mercy of the organization that drafts him. For the first three years of their major league careers, they’re paid at the whim of the team. The next three years they’re eligible for arbitration. Then they can become free agents. If they choose to do as Longoria did and sign a contract to give up their opportunity at arbitration and have their first couple of years at free agency bought out with guaranteed years and options, they can have a nice nest egg of $10-20 million regardless of whether if they flame out as players or become stars. It’s a gamble they take. It’s a gamble the team makes. It applies to everyone from Trout to the last player taken in the draft who manages to make it to the big leagues for a cup of coffee or is a late-bloomer and has a 20-year career.

You wouldn’t know that, though, from the indignant reaction to the Angels deciding to renew Trout’s contract for $510,000. Does Trout’s near-MVP season in 2012 have any bearing on the Angels’ decision to raise his salary by $28,000 from what he made as a rookie? Should it?

The Players Association makes the rules for all the players and it’s the players who instituted these rules. It allowed MLB to implement draconian constraints on newly drafted players because of the proffered reason to cut down on the huge signing bonuses amateurs receive. But the real, primordial reason is a “screw those guys” attitude that permeates established players and would, in a financial form of plausible deniable hazing, let the drafted players work their way up to making big money. It’s long been a point of contention for veteran major leaguers to see some kid taken at number 5 in the draft being handed an automatic $8 million bonus for nothing other than being a good amateur or having great tools. They dealt with it the best way they knew how. Of course it blew up in some of their faces as solid pitcher Kyle Lohse is sitting out because no one wants to give up the draft pick to sign him.

Eventually it affects everyone. These are the rules. The Angels aren’t beholden to an abstract code of right and wrong. They don’t have to give Trout a long-term contract extension if they don’t want to and they renewed his contract for an amount determined on their own volition. They don’t have to apologize or explain.

If Trout plays even 75% as well as he did in 2012, he’s going to get a $200 million contract from the Angels or someone else. He’ll have his freedom in five years. For now, he’s tied to the club that drafted him and that club can pay him whatever they choose to pay him under the parameters of the basic agreement. They decided on $510,000 and that’s what he’ll be paid. Or maybe they’re already planning a long-term contract to pay him for the next 6-8 years and buy out his arbitration years and free agency. Until that happens, his salary is what it is.

Is it fair?

Is it unfair?

It’s neither. These are the rules. It’s not slave wages and there’s no reason for the explosion of public ridicule for the Angels operating within the pay structure in Major League Baseball.

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King Felix’s Mariners Deal Will Get Done Because It Has To Get Done

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The dual-sided coin of big signings leaked to the media before they’re “officially” official is landing incoveniently for both the Mariners and Felix Hernandez now that there’s a sudden snag in the finalization of his $175 million contract extension with the club. Did he fail the physical? According to this Geoff Baker piece, that’s what it sounds like. But we won’t know until we know even though, technically, it’s not our business. More information will be whispered to various media people by unnamed sources and it will, of course, wind up in front of the fans’ prying eyes.

This puts the sides in an equally unfavorable position. The Mariners were basking in the glow of the positive aspect of keeping their franchise arm through the 2019 season. Hernandez was becoming the highest paid pitcher in baseball and wouldn’t have to worry about being traded or heading into free agency.

The Mariners were presumably worn out from having to answer the phone with, “Hello? Seattle Mariners. Felix Hernandez is not available, how may I direct your call?”

GM Jack Zduriencik’s typical conversations must have gone the same way, fending off Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman’s advances as he tried to cajole, beg, demand and whine Hernandez away from the Mariners. Given his history with the Cliff Lee switcheroo and pawning Michael Pineda off on the Yankees, if Hernandez were truly suffering from a potential elbow problem, Zduriencik would’ve traded him to the Yankees long ago. The Yankees would’ve taken him, signed him and it would’ve been their problem for the future.

Now it’s the Mariners’ risk. They’ll have to live with it.

Buster Olney writes that there is “concern” about his pitching elbow. Of course his workload and the number of innings he’s pitched were referenced with context in the above-linked ESPN piece. Its relevance is cherrypicking considering clubs like the Nationals have taken great pains to limit the number of innings for their young pitchers such as Stephen Strasburg only to see them blow out their elbows anyway. Why point to Hernandez’s workload with the unsaid implication that it’s eventually going to be a problem with long-term durability when there have been pitchers who’ve gotten hurt with lighter touches and others who haven’t despite being “abused?”

This highlights the gray area of giving a player a massive contract and the new practice of making sure the player isn’t signing it with a foreseeable injury already in place and ticking like a time bomb. We saw it earlier this winter with the Red Sox and Mike Napoli as a $39 million deal over three years became a $5 million base salary with $8 million in incentives for one year because of a hip problem. In fact, the Red Sox were something of a pioneer in this practice. Whereas other clubs were signing players without worrying about the future and getting torched for it as the Mets did with Pedro Martinez, the Red Sox made it their life’s work to install protective language in the event of injury. They did it with John Lackey and Napoli. It’s a sound business practice even if it’s going to upset the fans and put players in a situation where they have to shop their services elsewhere. Just as easily as it gets out into the public that a deal is “done,” it can also hinder a player if he tries to go somewhere else if an injury is found and disclosed before he signs.

Deals of this kind would be better for all parties if they weren’t leaked to the media prior to official completion, but every reporter worth anything has his sources in management and with player agents. It benefits the club and the player to have the information out to prevent cold feet, second thoughts or a better offer from someone else. It benefits them, that is, until something unexpected like this happens.

This is bad on multi-levels for each side and why the Mariners will eventually sign Hernandez. The Mariners had their one star locked up and are trying to give their increasingly irritable fanbase a reason to think that brighter days lie ahead.

Now that’s on hold.

With this news, Hernandez’s trade value is slashed significantly. The Mariners would get a big package for him if they chose to deal him now since he’s signed through 2014 and, as far as we know, is healthy enough to pitch in the short-term. It’s nowhere near what they’d get if the trading team thought they were getting him and keeping him for the long-term.

For Hernandez, it’s become public knowledge that there’s something going on in his elbow. If this contract fell through, Hernandez might tell the Mariners to trade him; he might start becoming concerned about what this news is going to do to his value if he winds up on the free agent market, and rightfully so. How would it look for a team to have warning two years in advance that there’s something off in the elbow, then signs him for $150+ million and having him get injured? They’re not getting full insurance on the contract with this out there until he’s been checked and given a clean bill of health from multiple doctors.

The leaks made for a few days of big headlines, but boomeranged on both Hernandez and the Mariners. What was a happy marriage is a shotgun wedding. The deal will get done because now it has to get done.

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