What I’m hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale explains who could be next in line for a big pay day following Mike Trout huge extension.
Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado traveled similar career paths – from prospect, to prodigy, to superstar – that eventually diverged.
Now, thanks to a 30-day stretch that saw $1 billion committed to the trio, they are forever linked.
Machado started it on Feb. 19, agreeing to a 10-year, $300 million deal with the San Diego Padres. Harper’s saga ended March 1, his 13-year, $330 million agreement with the Philadelphia Phillies setting a new standard for total value.
Tuesday, it was Trout’s turn. A 10-year, $360 million extension – creating a 12-year, $426.5 million total commitment – made him a Los Angeles Angel for life.
In an industry that grows more risk averse every year, the pacts are proof that some players are different – that the generational star will occasionally make ownership throw reason to the wind and empty the checkbook.
It seems silly, then, to assess which of these contracts might be the “best value” for the involved teams. You seek value in a fifth starter or seeing if the back of bullpen could be manned by minimum-wage rookies, not when locking down a franchise player.
Yet even though these contracts were of a more impetuous nature, that won’t stop the modern parlor game of quantifying which deal ultimately was the most optimal. It’s a tricky gambit in the near term: Injury and the effects of aging are challenging to impossible to project.
Let’s give it a shot anyway.
Herewith, a look, through both metrics and supposition, at which young star may hold up best over the long haul – and come closest to living up to the terms of his megadeal.
Age when contract expires in 2031: 39
Career WAR (per Baseball Reference): 27.4
Career homers/OPS: 184/.900
What he’s done: An MVP at 22, Harper has not yet replicated that 2015 season of optimal health and production, when he hit 42 homers and posted an astounding 198 OPS-plus. His platform year before free agency was far from ideal, as his batting average languished below .220 into July and he struggled defensively. Yet he still managed a league-leading 133 walks, hit 34 homers and drove in 100 runs.
2019 projections, per ZiPS: .944 OPS, 4.8 WAR.
Peaked, or freak: Harper will never be 22 again, but still has several seasons of prime (or close to it) physical condition. Combine that with the experience of nearly 4,000 major league plate appearances, and it’s not a reach to suggest Harper’s Mona Lisa season has yet to unfold. Harper has had a pair of disruptive injuries to his left knee – first when he slammed into the Dodger Stadium wall in May 2013, and then in 2017 when he slipped on a wet base running out a ground ball. But the knee has stayed structurally sound, and other than a balky shoulder that affected in him 2016, he’s been relatively healthy. He should get some relief in coming years when the DH is presumably added to the National League.
Golden years: Even as injuries nicked him, Harper’s on-base skills have settled at an elite level– his .410 OBP since 2015 trails only Joey Votto, Trout and Paul Goldschmidt. While pitchers will attack him with greater vigor as his bat speed deteriorates, Harper’s home ballpark and on-base ability should keep the final years of his deal from being a total write-off.
Outlook: Perhaps no player of the trio has more urgency than Harper to start strong. He’s on a Phillies team built to win and carries the biggest free agent commitment ever while lacking Trout’s bona fides, all in a demanding market. Not to worry: Harper should be an All-Star more years than he’s not, and likely has another MVP campaign in him. The question is whether he can get that MVP season – or, better yet, World Series championship – in the bank before a palpable decline commences.
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RIGHT CHOICE: Trout the right guy to get the biggest deal ever
NIGHTENGALE: Why Mike Trout never wanted to leave the Angels
Age when contract expires in 2028: 36
Career WAR: 33.8
Career homers/OPS: 175/.822
What he’s done: Machado’s inevitable stardom – he was named an All-Star just as he turned 21 – was deferred after suffering a debilitating knee injury at the end of his first full season, which also robbed him of half his 2014 campaign. Since 2015, though, it’s been straight up damage: Four consecutive seasons of 33 to 37 home runs, eighth among all players in that span and second only to Nolan Arenado among third basemen/shortstops. A midseason trade to the Dodgers, who adjusted his defensive positioning, revealed him to be a better shortstop than his stint with the Orioles suggested.
2019 projections: 5.4 WAR/.849 OPS
Peaked, or freak: It’s possible we’ve seen the best of Machado, but there’s also ample evidence he will continue punishing the ball and has plenty of clout to mitigate the move from Camden Yards to Petco Park. Machado’s hard-hit ball percentage actually peaked last season, at 47.8%, and he led the major leagues with 255 balls hit harder than 95 mph. He slugged a career-best .575 during his 96 games with Baltimore before the trade to the Dodgers. Machado should remain a better than league-average defender at third base through at least the first half of this deal, and battle Arenado for NL hot corner supremacy during that stretch.
Golden years: After a fairly successful dalliance as a shortstop in 2018, Machado will return to third base in 2019, and he should age quite gracefully alongside Fernando Tatis Jr. His power should remain sufficient to justify a move to first base if and when his defensive dexterity fades.
Outlook: Machado started this gold rush, and he ends it with his club taking on the smallest amount of risk, in the traditional sense: “Just” 10 years committed, and a mere 36-year-old player at the end of it. The Padres may look like bargain-hunters in a few years.
Age when contract expires in 2030: 39
Career WAR: 64.3
Career homers/OPS: 240/.990
What he’s done: Never follow Mike Trout’s intro at a Kiwanis Club luncheon; you’ll only feel terribly unaccomplished. Just know this: It would be surprising if Trout didn’t end up as one of the consensus 10 greatest players of all time. He’s already there when it comes to career OPS (ninth), adjusted OPS (175, sixth) and, very quietly, stolen base percentage (84.75%, ninth). He’s exactly halfway to Stan Musial’s 128 career WAR, which places Musial eighth all-time. Has Trout even started the back nine of his career?
2019 projection: 8.6 WAR/1.023 OPS
Peaked, or freak: We are in uncharted waters here, and the next decade will be fascinating. Can Trout get even better? What more can he add to his game? How soon will he start to fade? Will he ever? Consider this: Trout’s 2018 season might have been his finest, with career bests in OBP (.460), OPS/OPS-plus (1.088/199), at-bats per home run (12.1) and weighted runs created plus (191). And he didn’t even win AL MVP. Stay hungry, big fella.
Golden years: It’s inevitable Trout will slow down, literally if not statistically. His sprint speed is already down a tick – from 29.6 feet per second in 2015 (ranking 11th in baseball) to 29.2 last year (35th). Will an older Trout run less, but hit for more power? Certainly, he’ll transition off center field, likely in the first half of his 12 guaranteed years with the Angels. Yet, a presumably slower, beefier Trout will still be a force to behold, thanks to his strength, elite on-base skills and an obvious love of domination.
Outlook: Barring significant injury, the Angels will harvest more than enough value out of this deal. Will Trout deliver a perfect return on investment at 39? Probably not. But bet on the Angels enduring the fewest sleepless nights over the life of their superstar’s deal.
Follow Lacques on Twitter @GabeLacques