Any theoretical negotiation starts from this premise: He is 22 years old, and already the best player in baseball. (And if not for Miguel Cabrera's existence, he'd be the best by far.) We have already accepted that the economics of Mike Trout can't rely on past data, because there's nothing comparable. But if he were to hit the open market, how much could he get? Baseball people think: all the money.
Buster Olney set out to answer that question in a pair of columns. The discussion is purely academic for now: The Angels still have Trout under control for one more season before he becomes arbitration-eligible, and could conceivably go year-to-year with arbitration until the winter of 2017.
They won't, though, if they don't want to alienate Trout by paying him below market rate for his prime years, and send him fleeing to free agency at his first opportunity. At some time within the next year, the Angels will try to sign him to a long-term contract. What could that deal look like?
"Twelve years, $400 million," says one agent (not Trout's). And though no one's ever signed a deal worth more than $275 million, one team executive says $400 million isn't so crazy. When you break it down—$33.3 million annually, until age 34, when Alex Rodriguez got $27.5 million a year through age 41—it sounds downright reasonable.
And what if, just for shits and giggles, Mike Trout said he'd only sign a one-year deal? How much would the best player in the world make as a rental?
"I'd think the bidding would begin at $35 million," said one evaluator, "and wind up somewhere in the range of $45 million to $50 million."
Said a second evaluator: "If he was on the open market and the Dodgers had a chance to get him — and pull him away from the Angels — he'd get $50 million."
The lesson is that at some point in the next few years, Trout is going to get paid. But will it be by the Angels? Arte Moreno hasn't been shy about opening the checkbook, but that hasn't particularly paid off for Anaheim, and they're going to be shelling out sunk costs for years to come. Josh Hamilton will be making $32.4 million in both 2016 and 2017, the last two years before Trout's free agency (see what we said about a $33.3M AAV not being so nuts?), and Albert Pujols is on the books for four years after that.
Opportunity cost must be considered. For what Mike Trout will earn, a team could instead have two or three very good players. But maybe that's not the way to look at this. One executive told Olney that Trout is "like Babe Ruth, in how much better he is than the rest of baseball." The question becomes not what an owner would pay to have Babe Ruth, but what an owner would pay to avoid losing Babe Ruth. Arte Moreno shouldn't need a séance to ask Harry Frazee how that went.