Monday, June 11, 2012

Pujols Contract Could Cost Angels Trout

By Joshua Duffy

With the recent emergence of Albert Pujols from his early-season doldrums, everything seems to be running smoothly for the Los Angeles Angels. They're winning, the Texas Rangers have faltered, and we could well be looking at the first-place Angels by week's end.

The resurgence has coincided with two factors:

1. The Angels (finally) deciding to bring up Mike Trout, the phenom who has raced right past the Rookie of the Year race straight into MVP talk. He's putting up silly numbers right now, hitting homers one day, then stealing second and third on consecutive pitches the next. He's making the game look easy, and his presence atop the Angels' order has put everybody else, Pujols included, into a nice mid-season groove.

2. Mark Trumbo finally started getting regular playing time. After scrapping the plan to have Trumbo play third regularly (they gave his natural position, first base, to Pujols), Trumbo sat out seven of the team's first 19 games. Since then, he has sat out two, and has started every game since May 12, the majority of that time in right field (20 games) and left field (10).

And all was well again in L.A.

The other side of the story is that the Angels, while enjoying the fruits of a Trout/Trumbo/Pujols dominated lineup now, have created a looming payroll quandary that could threaten the long-term competitiveness of the club.

To set the scene, the numbers:

Pujols is making $12 million this year, then will go from $16 million in 2013 to $23 million in 2014, then add $1 million per year until he makes $30 million in 2021.

Trumbo is making $500,000 this year, and will make about the same next year under his third "rookie contract" year. Then, barring a pre-emptive extension like those signed by Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki, Trumbo will enter three years or arbitration eligibility before finally becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2017 at age 31.

The timeline for Trumbo could move up a year if he qualifies as a "Super 2," defined on the Major League Baseball Players Association website as "A player with at least two but less than three years of Major League service shall be eligible for salary arbitration if he has accumulated at least 86 days of service during the immediately preceding season and he ranks in the top 22 percent (increased from 17 percent in previous agreements) in total service in the class of Players who have at least two but less than three years of Major League service, however accumulated, but with at least 86 days of service accumulated during the immediately preceding season."

Trout, who is making $414,000 this year, will follow the same path as Trumbo, with the exception he looks certain to qualify as a Super 2. Without an extension, Trout would get to arbitration in 2014, then free agency in 2017 before his age 26 season.

The first lesson from those numbers is the absurdity of baseball's early-career compensation system. Trout and Trumbo lead the Angels in just about every offensive category there is, yet combined this season they will make about the same as Pujols does in 12 games. I'm all for paying based on a track-record of consistency (as long as you can project that consistency through the life of the contract), but any system that pays one guy 12 times more than your two most productive hitters combined is just a tad out of whack.

The politics of inequality aside, a much more market-based argument that Pujols' contract is a payroll time bomb comes when you project how Trout and Trumbo will fit into the Angels' budget in two years and beyond.

Arbitration is heavily weighted in the players' favor, and Trout would probably set or approach the record if he continues on his current pace. Trumbo likely won't command nearly the same haul as Trout, but he won't come cheap either.

If the Angels just take the arbitration approach without signing either player to a long-term deal, their combined salaries in 2014 could exceed $15 million, more if Trumbo gets Super 2 and is in his second year of arbitration. Combined with Pujols' $23 million, you're looking at close to $40 million for the three. Considering Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter (combined $39 million this year) will be off the books by then, it's that not bad considering.

It's only going to get more expensive from there during the arbitration process, but it's still nothing to be too concerned about. But 2017 is where things get really tricky.

2017 is when Trout and Trumbo (not to mention ace Jered Weaver and C.J Wilson) come due for free agency, and that's where the boated second half of the Pujols deal could really come back to haunt Arte Moreno.

Consider if you're Trout's agent Craig Landis. What advice to you give to your client, who could conceivably hit the open market at 26-years-old? If he's anything like Scott Boras, he's going to make damn sure Trout hits free agency.

Think the New Jersey kid might like the idea of patrolling center field for the Yankees or Phillies (who can get out from under the Ryan Howard deal that season)? And if it came to a bidding war, how high could the Angels go knowing that Pujols was still on the books for $25 million and up each season through 2021?

Will they go to $50 million for two players AND find room in the budget to re-sign Weaver? And you can pretty much guarantee Trumbo, who could have played first for the next decade at much more reasonable rates than Pujols, will find himself squeezed out of L.A.

Of course all of that is irrelevant now. The Angels are back over .500 and enjoying the early days of what could be a very special career for Trout.

Enjoy it now, Angels fans. That bill is going to come due before you know it, and it's going to be a doozy.

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