My Heart Bleeds for Mike Trout

With Spring Training still in the early stages, there isn’t much substantive, or at least particularly interesting, news about MLB today.  For example, the second story on both espn.com and sportsillustrated.com is Yankees’ general manager Brian Cashman breaking his leg while sky-diving — he isn’t dead or even mentally incapacitated, so who really cares?

For this reason, I suspect, there has been considerable discussion about the fact that the Angels renewed Mike Trout‘s contract for 2013 for $510,000, only $20,000 above the league minimum, in spite of the phenomenal rookie year Trout had.

Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron wrote an article about the Trout contract and the MLB salary scale in general, which contains some good points, as Cameron’s stuff usually does, but which left me feeling a need to comment.

Cameron says that Trout’s second year contract is the norm under the system in place, as set forth by the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between the players’ union and the owners, and that this system is good for competitive balance because it helps the low revenue teams compete.

Cameron puts this system at the feet of “the union,” which is only half true.  It takes two to bargain a CBA, and inexperienced players’ salaries are low because the owners have fought like hell to keep them low.

In fact, the reason inexperienced players’ salaries are low is because the owners have a strong argument to keep them low: the fact that most major league players need a long minor league apprenticeship before they are ready to play in the majors.

Minor league systems are almost always big money losers for the parent teams, even if a few minor league franchises are profitable (the old Louisville Redbirds spring to mind — the Bats have done well too playing in a smaller stadium).  As such, major teams have successfully argued that teams should be able to keep player salaries low for the first few years to recoup their investments.

Cameron notes that other unionized sports have adopted similar pay scales to MLB.  Well, there are reasons for that.  The Baseball Players’ Association was the first real union in professional sports; as such, its CBAs constituted a starting place for negotiations in other professional sports.

Hockey, like MLB, has an extensive minor league system.  The NBA does not, and salaries for second and third year players are much higher than in baseball.  The NFL has the weakest players’ union, plus the fact that because of all the injuries, many marginal players have short NFL careers — both explain why inexperienced players (with the extremely notable exception of high draft picks) have low salaries in the NFL.

Further, the idea that low early career salaries are “unfair” to rookie stars like Mike Trout doesn’t withstand a lot of scrutiny.  Most of the best and most valuable players have careers long enough to reach arbitration and then free agency, at which point they get paid and then some.  Most of the players who don’t last long enough to reach arbitration or free agency either aren’t that good or get hurt before they reach their full potential.  [Don’t suggest Mark Prior, who blew out his arm before he could get the big arbitation/free agent bucks — he signed a record-setting contract as an amateur draftee out of college.]

There are exceptions, of course, but really not that many when you consider the whole of major league playerdom.  Cameron writes, “I sympathize with players in Trout’s situation. If his career goes the way of Grady Sizemore, he may never land the massive paycheck that his talent is worth.”  This comment only proves the point that Trout will eventually get paid unless he suffers an extremely severe and extremely rare injury.

Despite all the injuries, Grady Sizemore has been paid $26.37 million over the last five seasons, according to baseball reference.  This means that, unless there has been or is in the future some serious profligacy, neither Grady nor his immediate descendants will ever go to bed hungry.

All this being said, the Angels really did renew Mike Trout’s contract for too little.  The Angels apparently didn’t want to disrupt their “salary scale” for young players, which is why they gave Trout only a $20,000 raise.  As if the Angels had a young player like Mike Trout come along every year or three.

What the Angels need to be thinking about is how they are going to keep Trout around when he becomes a free agent five years from now.  If they low-ball Trout now, he’s going to want market rates, which the Angels can well afford to pay and have indeed paid as recently as Albert Pujols and C. J. Wilson.  Or even worse, Trout will want to test the free agent market to see what’s really out there for him.

By way of comparison, the Giants are relatively generous with their franchise players.  After Buster Posey won the 2010 rookie of the year award (and the World Series), the Giants bumped his 2011 salary to $575,000, still well within the pre-arbitration “salary range”, but more than most teams would give a second year player.  The Giants recognized that Posey was worth it and that it would help the team in contract negotiations in later years.

When Posey eventually reaches free agency, he is going to remember that the Giants have always been generous with him.  Don’t think this isn’t important — Posey is from Georgia and played his college ball in North Florida, and there are a lot of wealthy East Coast teams that could pay him top dollar while allowing him to play his home games closer to home region.

Meanwhile, the Angels saved $50,000 or $75,000 they don’t really need.  When Trout, who is a South Jersey boy, approaches free agency, he’s going to be lot more receptive to the kinds of offers the Yankees, Mets and Phillies can make him because the Angels low-balled him today.

It’s no knock on Buster Posey to say that Mike Trout is worth as much or more to the Angels in 2013 than Posey was to the Giants in 2011.  Trout is that young and that good.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Anaheim Angels, Baseball History, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants

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