Mike Trout's Historic $400M LeBron-Like Free Agency Is Back onMarch 7, 2019
The sweepstakes for neither Bryce Harper nor Manny Machado really lived up to the hype, yet they still walked away from Major League Baseball's free-agent market with $630 million between them.
Makes you wonder how Mike Trout will fare in a couple years, doesn't it?
Following a 2017-18 offseason that was notoriously unkind to star free agents, the expectation for 2018-19 was always that Harper and Machado would spearhead a market correction. In so doing, they'd set a high bar for Trout—otherwise known as the best player in baseball now and maybe ever—to move even higher after his contract with the Los Angeles Angels concludes in 2020.
There were times when Harper's and Machado's markets seemed headed in other, less lucrative directions, but it all worked out. Machado set a free-agent record with a 10-year, $300 million payout from the San Diego Padres, only to have Harper break it with a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Internally, Trout may have jumped for joy when he saw these numbers. Externally, he played it cool when he was asked about what they might mean for his own market value.
"I haven't really thought about it," said the 27-year-old, according to Gabe Lacques of USA Today. "I'm happy, I'm happy with what they got, they obviously wanted that, and we'll go from there."
The seven-time All-Star and two-time American League MVP can stick to his trademark humility all he wants. It's also worth noting he's already rich. His current deal is worth $144.5 million.
The reality, however, is that the Harper and Machado contracts all but sealed the deal that Trout's free agency is going to be the biggest North American sports bonanza this side of LeBron James' occasional dilemmas about where to take his talents.
The topic of how much Trout might earn as a free agent is already a hot one. For instance, former teammate Jered Weaver was presumably only half-joking when he proposed a $1 billion deal:
Other figures bandied about on social media (h/t Michelle R. Martinelli of USA Today) ranged from the absurd ($900 zillion) to the slightly less absurd ($500 million) to the not-at-all absurd ($400 million).
One figure that may actually be in play for Trout right now is $350 million. That's what the Angels are prepared to offer their star center fielder in a new contract extension, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Such a deal would set records for its total guarantee and its $35 million average annual value.
Yet Rosenthal is correct in asserting that "a $40 million average annual value and $400 million guarantee would not seem unreasonable" for Trout's next deal. And if he doesn't receive such an offer from the Angels, he'll almost certainly find that kind of money on the open market after 2020.
The "almost" is necessary because MLB free agency still has problems despite Harper and Machado's record-setting deals. The big one concerns how some teams treat the luxury tax as more of a hard cap than a soft cap. That may not change until a new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated for 2022.
There's also widespread wariness about signing older players to long-term contracts. Even Trout won't be exempt from that kind of scrutiny. He'll be 29 and coming off his age-28 season after 2020. By comparison, Harper and Machado are 26-year-olds coming off their age-25 seasons.
Per Baseball Reference wins above replacement, however, the appeal of Trout's playing ability—which notably consists of excellent power, patience and speed and mostly solid defense—would have severely trumped Harper and Machado's if he'd also been on the market this winter:
- Trout: 64.3 WAR
- Machado: 33.8 WAR
- Harper: 27.4 WAR
Trout's 64.3 WAR through his age-26 season is an all-time record. Heck, he'd still be tied for 11th all-time even if he added zero WAR to his ledger through his age-28 season in 2020.
Of course, Trout's decline will come eventually. But if there's a lesson to be learned from the greatest hitters (i.e., those who amassed at least 50 WAR) ever through the age of 28, it's that they tend to have something left in the tank after 29:
*This isn't counting Albert Pujols, who's still ticking.
Sure, these players' returns diminished with age. But 12 of the 26 had at least another 50 WAR in them. The group as a whole averaged 50 additional WAR.
The cautionary tales are Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones. Much like Trout is now, they earned great acclaim as do-it-all center fielders when they were in their 20s. Next thing anyone knew, age and injuries robbed them of their athleticism. Before long, their bats withered away too.
But while Trout is similar to peak Griffey and peak Jones, adjusted OPS+ reveals that neither was as good of a hitter then as Trout is now:
Trout's hitting has also been putting his contemporaries to shame of late. He's led Major League Baseball in OPS+ three years in a row. Likewise, he leads everyone in xwOBA—a Statcast metric that measures expected production based on contact quality—since 2016.
Setting aside the less-than-savory implications of the comparison, Trout is more of a candidate for a Barry Bondsian aging curve. Even after his athleticism goes, his bat should keep his star shining.
So barring any truly catastrophic injuries between now and 2020, to the high bidder will go the spoils.
Harper has thrown caution to the wind and made it crystal clear he'd like the Phillies to sign Trout after 2020. They should have the payroll space to do so, and Trout himself may jump at the chance to play within shouting distance of his hometown of Millville, New Jersey.
Other teams with serious money to spend after 2020 include the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and, of course, the Angels. And if the Machado signing is any indication, it's silly to rule out any team at a time when MLB's revenues are firmly in the 11-figure range.
Set your watch. Mark your calendar. Whatever it takes, get ready for a free-agent frenzy that'll make history.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Payroll data courtesy of Spotrac.