There's no doubt he'd succeed. It's the degree to which he could succeed that's the question, and coming up with a definitive answer is...Well, it proved to be trickier than I anticipated.
Here's the deal: Trout, the Los Angeles Angels superstar and baseball demigod walking among us, will be eligible for salary arbitration for the first time following the 2014 season. Assuming he doesn't sign an extension between now and then, of course.
The thinking is that Trout, who right now is only entitled to the league minimum of $500,000, is destined to shatter the record payout of $10 million for a first-time arbitration-eligible player set by Ryan Howard in 2008.
Sounds about right. Beyond being younger—Trout will be through his age-22 season, whereas Howard was through his age-27 season—Trout is the superior player. Howard had power, but Trout has power, the ability to hit for average, steal bases, play excellent defense and to see through walls (probably).
However, arbitration is a unique beast. In such a way that it could be tricky for Trout to top Howard's $10 million payout if his case were to actually go to arbitration.
Here are the criteria for determining arbitration payouts as laid down by MLB's collective bargaining agreement:
- The quality of the player's most recent season
- The length and consistency of the player's career contribution
- The record of the player's past compensation
- Comparative baseball salaries
- The existence of any physical or mental defects
- The recent performance record of the player's club
In regards to the first two, if we dial up FanGraphs and plug in what Steamer is projecting for Trout in 2014, we get:
Steamer basically sees Trout having a typical Trout season in 2014, which makes sense given how not close to the end of his prime he is. And if it's WAR we're focusing on, it's worth noting that no hitter in history has ever compiled as much as 30 WAR through his age-22 season.
It's whether said arbitration panel would care that's the question.
Ken Rosenthal made a point of comparing WARs in discussing Trout and Howard, but it wouldn't be in an arbitration panel's character to do something like that. Here's Maury Brown of BizofBaseball.com writing for FanGraphs in 2010:
Because the arbitration process ultimately could be determined by a panel of arbitrators, not of a baseball background but from the American Arbitration Association, no advanced stats are used to compare players. So, no WAR. No wOBA. What you get are the traditional stats, with the likes of OPS and WHIP just now making its way into the arbitration panel vernacular.
Other things that help in arbitration: awards and honors. The more of those a player has, the better.
Thus is it not surprising that Howard holds the record for a first-time arbitration payout. At the time, he was coming off a 47-homer, 136-RBI season in 2007. The year before, he had won the NL MVP after leading the league in homers (58) and RBI (149). The year before that, he won the Rookie of the Year.
Trout does have a Rookie of the Year. He might have an MVP by the time he goes to arbitration. What he won't have are old-school counting stats to match the ones Howard had in 2008. The 27-homer, 83-RBI season Trout is projected to have in 2014 would pale in comparison to Howard's 2007 season. Nor will Trout have the 129 homers and 353 RBI Howard had at the time.
On top of that is the complication that team performance (No. 6) matters. Howard and the Philadelphia Phillies won the NL East in 2007. Trout and the Angels might not be up to the task of winning a loaded AL West in 2014.
Point being: Trout may be looking to beat Howard's payout this time next year, but using Howard as a comp to do so might not work. Not unless the arbitration panel were to play against type and buy into Trout's sabermetric excellence.
We'd be having a different discussion if there was a recent and relevant test case for Trout, but there's only one that might have been: Andrew McCutchen.
Like Trout, McCutchen is a center fielder with a good ability to get on base, good power, good speed and a good glove. The Pittsburgh Pirates star was heading into his final pre-arb season in 2012, at the end of which his service time was going to be somewhere in the 3.000 (years, days) range, the same place Trout is going to be after 2014.
McCutchen would have been in line for quite the payday given what he did in 2012: a .327 average, 29 homers, 20 stolen bases, 96 RBI, an All-Star appearance, a Gold Glove and a top-five MVP finish. But by that time, he was already taken care of.
The Pirates inked McCutchen to a six-year, $51.5 million contract in March of 2012, buying out his final pre-arb year, all three arbitration years and two free-agent years in the process. What would have been a relevant arbitration case for Trout was nixed.
Darn. I guess this puts us in best-guess territory.
One thing the Angels might try to do is copy what the Cincinnati Reds did with Joey Votto in 2011: Just buy out three arbitration years in one fell swoop.
The Reds did that with a three-year, $38 million extension that paid Votto an average of $12.66 million per year. This was instead of the $7-ish million Maury Brown floated as a possible first-time arbitration payout. Votto's salary would have risen from there, so what the Reds did was buy a bigger package for cheap rather than a small package for cheap.
Maybe the Angels could do a three-year, $45-50 million pact with Trout. For him, that would mean good money coming his way even if his career took an unexpected turn for the worse. He'd also still be set to hit free agency after only his age-25 season.
Will Mike Trout make it to arbitration?
For the Angels, a deal like that would ultimately be cheaper than the $15-20-25 million progression that Bill Shaikin suggested for Trout's arbitration years, and about in the range of the more conservative $12-16-20 million progression Ken Rosenthal floated. It could also make Trout receptive to talking a bigger, longer extension a short way down the road, just like the one Votto and the Reds pulled off in 2012.
But it's up to Trout. If he gives off signals that the Angels have a better chance of buttering him up for an extension by playing his salary by ear on a year-to-year basis, then so be it. And rather than risk things getting messy in arbitration, the best thing for the Angels will be to reach fair compromises with Trout.
Starting in 2015, that would mean sucking it up and giving Trout a salary that would top the $10 million Howard got. Maybe an arbitration panel wouldn't go for Trout as the best player in the universe based on the old-school stats, but it's going to be in the Angels' interest to not jerk Trout around.
What would get the trick done? Probably something in that $12-15 million range. For the heck of it, let's call it an even (not actually "even," but whatever) $13.5 million.
The line from A to B that I've drawn is a squiggly one. It would be less squiggly if it was obvious that Trout has a shot at topping Howard's record first-year payout by going to arbitration, but the process' notorious preference for old-school stats and individual honors make that no sure thing.
But since the Angels don't want to risk souring their relationship with Trout, something will get done. Whether it's a Votto-esque multiyear deal or a simple one-year compromise, the smart money's on Trout getting his due.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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