What If Mike Trout Held Out?

Baseball's most valuable player over the last two years has been paid just a fraction of what he's worth. He could change that, and everything else.
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Presumably out of the purity and goodness of their hearts, the Angels agreed to double Mike Trout’s 2014 salary to $1 million. That’s roughly as much as he made in the previous two seasons combined, provided you include the $10,000 he made for winning Rookie of the Year in 2012, which you probably shouldn’t.

But there’s a problem. Mike Trout won’t be worth $1 million this season. Mike Trout will almost certainly be worth something more like $50 million this season. Between his hitting, fielding, and base running, FanGraphs estimates that Trout was worth $52.1 million last season. I include that 0.1 because it makes a difference given Mike Trout’s current salary.

Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Reference each say Trout’s 2013 season was worth about 10 wins. A win on the free agent market goes for anywhere from $5 million to $6 million, with some estimates ranging up to $7 million. Even if we take the lowest figure, which is probably too low, it’s not hard to see how Trout was worth $50 million in 2013. Trout will be 22 years old in 2014; by typical aging patterns, he should actually, somehow be getting better. But even if he gets worse, Trout will be worth far more than the $1 million the Angels are so kindly offering him. He'll be worth more than that by the time the calendar flips to May. But at this point in his career, Mike Trout has no choice but to take the offer his team makes, and say thanks.

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There is, supposedly, an order to these things. Major League Baseball has a salary structure in place, and it must be deferred to. To that I say bullshit.

That salary structure, which rewards players who have been in the league seven seasons—technically it’s six seasons, but teams routinely manipulate the rules so as to add an extra season—is patently unfair to players like Trout. By the current system, player’s salaries are determined by the club for the first three seasons. This means those players are paid the minimum, or as close to it, as a club can reasonably get away with. For the next three seasons, the club allows the player to arbitrate their salary, which effectively raises the player’s salary to roughly 40 percent, then 60 percent, and then 80 percent of what they would get on the open market. It succeeds in cutting a player’s salary by over a third during that three-year period, and that’s without measuring risk, which is almost wholly incurred by the players. The system effectively robs the young to pay the old, although it's more accurate to say that it robs the young to pay the owners.

If Trout were free to sign with any team for any length of time right now, today, he’d command a deal worth more than $400 million. Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe suggested that a six-year deal for Trout would cost $320 million, but he was calculating towards an extension, and so wasn’t attempting to figure what Trout would make on the free agent market. Were Trout a free agent, he’d surely make more than that, just as he’d get a deal longer than six seasons. But, of course, no player like Mike Trout—to the extent such a player has existed—has ever been a free agent at this point in his career. That's the point.

The ultimate cost isn’t important anyway. What is important is that Mike Trout isn’t going to see very much of that money. Even if he signs an extension with the Angels, it will be for, at best, half the money he’d make on the open market. Or, in the near term, he'll be granted a $500,000 raise on his $500,000 salary, because the Angels are such decent souls. They’re so super duper nice, in fact, that they’re paying him $1 million in 2014 and pocketing the rest of what they're not paying him, or spending it in other ways. Either way, Mike Trout isn’t seeing anywhere near what he’s clearly worth.

Trout is the victim of a system he had no part in negotiating and no choice but to accept. It's a system that is deliberately, blatantly, and obviously unfair to players of his age and type. The system in place prevents Trout from getting what he deserves, by design. The Angels are depending on Trout’s production this season, and paying about one-fiftieth of the going rate for that production.

As it stands now, Trout has two options. The first is accept what the Angels are offering, accept all the risks, and hope that when it’s his turn his health is still good and his value is still high. Cross those fingers! The second is go to the team and negotiate a contract extension, one that would likely keep him under team control longer and ensure he remains underpaid the whole time, but which would guarantee that some higher percentage of his worth would come to him. Neither is particularly palatable, and both pay Trout far less than he deserves. But the first one, Trout’s current situation, places all the risk in Trout’s corner and all the value in the Angels'.

There is one more option, actually.

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Mike Trout could hold out, and not play. He could tell the team he’s worth far more than they’re offering and that he won’t play until he’s compensated fairly. The team would freak out. The fans would freak out. Various righteous Knights of the Keyboard would have at him in the papers. The yowling masses would do their thing on talk radio, although they'd do that anyway. The players might even say mean things about him to the media. This may not be something Mike Trout wants to go through.

But his fellow young players would applaud him. The minor leaguers, baseball's sprawling serf class, would have his back. More importantly, the unfairness of the system would finally get the public discussion it deserves. Also, incidentally, maybe Mike Trout would actually get paid something like what he deserves to get paid.

That’s a lot to put on one guy, of course. The system is monumentally unfair to Trout and players like him, but $500,000 is a lot of money and $1 million is even more. It’s also true that the perpetuation of the system depends upon young players thinking that way, and more generally upon thinking that the system as it presently exists is the way that it has to be.

Holding out is an extreme step to take. It's tough to blame Trout for not taking it, as he probably won't. But unfair systems don’t fall unless pushed, and Mike Trout is the rare player strong enough to knock an entire system over.


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