Monday, March 4, 2013

Newsletter Extra: Mike Trout and Alex Rodriguez

Over the weekend, the Angels renewed Mike Trout's contract for a 2013 salary of $510,000, just $20,000 over the minimum salary. While a bit surprising, and certainly a hardball move, the Angels were well within their rights to renew Trout. In fact, it's the ability to pay Trout a tiny percentage of his market value or of his worth to the team that subsidizes the risks of paying Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton their market value to perhaps lose money on the deal.

No one other than Trout should have a problem with this decision. The Angels might have paid him more -- there's some precedent for teams with standout rookies paying those players more in the second year -- but there's no connection between Trout's 2013 salary and any decisions he might make five years down the road. An extra $300,000 now isn't going to influence a $30 million choice in the future, and thinking it will is one of the sillier myths in sports. There is no loyalty. Say it again: there is no loyalty. The Angels made the same business decision that Trout will have to make down the road, and that's the only relationship between the two.

The flip side of Trout making $510,000 off a season in which his performance was worth $30 million or more to the Angels in added wins isn't hard to find. Vernon Wells' 2013 salary is $21 million, after a season in which his performance was worth about 10% of that. Wells, however, is 34, at the back end of a career that will probably end soon, one that will get him a single appearance on a Hall of Fame ballot, maybe a token vote from a writer who liked him. (Criticism of his play aside, you can't find anyone to say a bad word about Wells.) Wells had five years banked as a regular and was 27 years old when the Blue Jays set him up for life with a seven-year contract extension worth $126 million. Since signing that deal, Wells has had two good years and four other ones, and at best he's a part-time player for a team with at least four outfielders better than he is.

This is the way MLB is structured. It was wholly unplanned -- arbitration came first, and that only for players with a couple of years in the league, then free agency and its six-year requirement -- and has created a significant disconnect between when a player is likely to produce the most and when a player is likely to get paid the most. From the start of his career through 2006, Vernon Wells made $9 million and produced 19 bWAR. Since then, he's made more than $80 million and produced a tick less than 7 bWAR. He's owed another $42 million and the ratio of salary to wins isn't likely to get much lower. This is the way the system is set up.

There are people, some of them working out of Tampa right now, up in arms over the fact that Alex Rodriguez is scheduled to make $28 million this year, and owed $114 million over the final five years of a contract signed after the 2007 season. That contract, due to Rodriguez's decline and increased susceptibility to injury -- things you never could have seen coming when you signed a 32-year-old, I guess -- weighs on the Yankees payroll. It has made Rodriguez a target of fan and media ire. Rodriguez isn't the first, of course, just the one taking the biggest shots today. Throughout the game there are players who are huge targets merely for signing contracts that included salaries they had little chance of being worth on the day they were signed. Alfonso Soriano and Jayson Werth and Barry Zito and Johan Santana. We rail at these players, call them overpaid bums and wish our teams would get rid of them.

Here's the thing: if you're not going to storm the barricades when Mike Trout makes 3% of his market value, then you lose the right to do so when Alex Rodriguez makes 300% of his. They're the exact same thing. Pay and performance are only loosely correlated in MLB, with service time a significant distorting factor. Players without it are systematically and in some cases violently underpaid, and those with it go the other way. Fans only get crazy over the latter class, though, an effect of the simplistic way in which baseball economics has been covered for 40 years.

Maybe Mike Trout eventually gets paid, becomes another Vernon Wells or Alex Rodriguez, making on the back end what he never made on the front end. If so, it's probable that there will come a time, 15 years down the road, when a local columnist will rail against this aging, broken-down guy who isn't worth his $40 million salary and who should just get out of the way so that the team can give the money to someone else.

Or maybe we'll all just be that much smarter by then.