Monday, March 31, 2014

Trout vs. Cabrera: A Tale of Two Extensions

By Jeff Kallman

When Mike Trout approached his second major league season a little over a year ago, the Angels looked a little bit foolish for raising the 2012 Rookie of the Year and damn-near Most Valuable Player a measly four percent above the major league minimum salary. Trout took it with a far larger grain of salt than his agent even as the Angels handed the largest such renewal (unsigned players could be renewed by the club between 2-11 march) to since-traded Mark Trumbo.

"I'm just happy to be in the lineup," Trout insisted on the record. "I mean, my time will come. I just have to keep putting out numbers and concentrating on one thing, and that's getting to the postseason." The Angels didn't get to the postseason last year, but Trout's time has come — and how. Hours after the Tigers dropped every jaw in baseball by signing Miguel Cabrera to an eight-year, $248 million contract extension on a contract that still had two years to go as of this season, the Angels retrieved those jaws and set them back into proper place by handing Trout a six-year, $144.5 million contract extension.

Added to the 2014 season to which he's already signed, Trout's deal sets a record for a player his age (22) and time in major league service. Cabrera's merely makes him, including the two years left on his incumbent deal, the highest-paid player ever, even slipping past now-suspended Alex Rodriguez's incumbent deal.

Trout celebrated by accepting some royal treatment at Angel Stadium Saturday afternoon, before the Angels squared off against the Dodgers in a final spring exhibition. He didn't stop there. In the game itself, Trout faced former Angel Dan Haren in the second inning and flogged one into the left field bullpen, just beyond the leap of another former Angel, Chone Figgins, who's made the Dodgers' roster in spring training after spending 2013 out of the majors.

After the game, Trout and teammate Garrett Richards challenged each other over a pair of 36-ounce steaks. This was a day after Trout's teammates needled him that they were waiting for him to sign so he could start picking up some serious checks.

So why is baseball celebrating Trout's extension while reaching for the rye bottle over Cabrera's?

"More than anything, this feels like a case of money burning a hole in 84-year-old team owner Mike Ilitch's pocket," writes Grantland‘s Jonah Keri. "After failing to sign an elite corner outfielder like Shin-Soo Choo this offseason and seeing co-ace Max Scherzer reject the team's six-year, $144 million offer, Cabrera was the next man up. And rather than wait two more seasons to collect additional data on an aging beefy giant with no skills other than hitting on which to rely, the Tigers focused on Cabrera being one of the most incredible hitters on the planet and opened their wallets, and so here we are."

Keri and others fear that, for all Cabrera's hitting skills — and he's a poetic study when wringing pitchers to get the pitch he wants, not flinching if it happens to come six inches inside the plate, and hits conversation-piece home runs off such pitches — the Tigers have channeled their inner Ruben Amaro, Jr., the Phillies' general manager whose Ryan Howard contract extension has been a regular conversation piece from the moment Howard began showing his age, a series of injuries, and a diminishing of his performance papers. Howard, too, had two years to go on a contract when Amaro hastened to make him an even wealthier man before he absolutely needed to think about it.

Ryan Howard, good as he was, has never been Miguel Cabrera. But the charitable analyses project that Cabrera may have three seasons to come before injuries and age begin making themselves manifest in earnest. The serious analyses, such as that by Yahoo! Sports's Jeff Passan, remind one and all that only six men previous in baseball history (in alphabetical order: Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, and Tris Speaker) were good enough between ages 33-40 to support the dollars-per-win Cabrera will cost the Tigers.

Trout, conversely, is almost a decade Cabrera's junior. He's also a far more complete package coming in. The major drift of the Trout-vs.-Cabrera argument over the past two seasons, when Cabrera bagged back-to-back MVP awards but serious cases were made that Trout should have bagged one of them at least, is that Trout does more to help his teams win than Cabrera does. Cabrera may have been a more clear-cut MVP than Trout in 2013, but in 2012 Cabrera's Triple Crown probably caused a lot of people to wave Trout off as a rook whose "time" hadn't "come." The fact that Trout created only one fewer run than Cabrera while using 56 fewer outs to do it, and saved his team thirty defensive runs in the field while Cabrera saved four below the American League average for his position, escaped those folks. So did Trout's .786 offensive winning percentage compared to Cabrera's .745.

Last year, Trout led the league in runs scored, walks, and wins above a replacement level player. Cabrera was a counting-stat monster last year, too. But he finished fourth in wins above a replacement level player, and defensively he was fifteen runs below the league average at his position. At the plate, Cabrera's MVP case was a little more clear than it was the year before. And, as in 2012, his team did get to the postseason while Trout's team didn't. But you can't fault Trout for the Angels' troubles in 2012-2013. Angel fans lamented what American League hitters thanked God for every night, that Trout can only play highlight-reel defense one position at a time.

Cabrera's extension is a big gamble by the Tigers on the assumption that the best hitter in baseball right now is going to continue hitting at that level for most of his 30s. Trout's extension is a vote of confidence by the Angels that this kid is their present and future even as they have other things to do — seeing that Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are back to something resembling their former all-star selves, hoping the rear end of the rotation doesn't prove to be the rear end of the front office that swapped Trumbo for two of those parts, hoping David Freese will find enough comfort in his new environment to play within himself, hoping the bullpen isn't just a lot of bull behind Ernesto Frieri, who saved 37 last year but whose 3.80 ERA and 1.24 WHIP might raise a red flag here and there.

Right now, however, Trout's going to enjoy being the beneficiary of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The thought of other baseball agents fuming because he didn't look to try milking the Angels' cow for every last drop of cash he could milk doesn't seem to faze him. All he has to do is live up to what he observed after signing the new extension.

"I'm relieved, man," he told reporters after the deal was done. "I'm going to play loose, and it's going to be fun. I think I play loose anyway, so I think it won't affect me. I'm just going to play like I've been playing, and it won't change." That would be even more wonderful news for Trout and the Angels, and more migraines for the league's pitchers and hitters alike.

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