Trout, Pujols, Hamilton: The Cost of Salary Dumping
Originally posted at isportstimes.com on July 24, 2013.
Some fun with numbers:
Those are the yearly salaries left for Albert Pujols during the duration of his mammoth 10 year $240 million contract he signed with the LA Angels a little over a year and a half ago. For those of you that left your TI-84 in your other pants, that comes out to a startling $212 million to be paid to Pujols over the next eight years. That’s a number that would make Merle Gorden blush.
This puts the Angels in between a (very expensive) rock and a hard place. As noted in this piece from the excellent Dave Cameron at FanGraphs, the Angels decided to backload the Pujols contract in order to maintain some modicum of financial flexibility to go for the World Series in the 2012 and 2013 seasons. As you can also see from the Cameron article, the Angels decided to use some of that flexibility to sign Josh Hamilton to a bloated five year, $125 million contract; a contract that can only be described as an unmitigated disaster to this point.
So back to that rock and hard place previously mentioned. The Angles have some tough decisions to make. In 2016, the Angels are locked in to paying roughly $107 million for Pujols, Hamilton, Jered Weaver, CJ Wilson and Erick Aybar. At this point, they won’t even have the luxury of uber-cheap deals for Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo; both will be arbitration eligible by that time. That will be around $130 million for a superstar, a good but flawed player in Trumbo, an average shortstop, and the great unknowns of the 2016 versions of Pujols/Hamilton/Weaver/Wilson. That leaves the Angels with precious little room under the luxury tax line to make improvements, a big deal due to the punitive nature of the luxury tax rules. With a farm system widely recognized as one of the worst in the game, cheap talent from promoted prospects, a la Mike Trout, will be hard to come by (how good would Jean Segura, lost in the Zack Greinke trade, look out at shortstop for the Angels).
So the Angles have a couple choices. One possibility is to ride out the duration of these bloated contracts and hope for the best. But if you’ve watched Pujols limp around the bases or Hamilton flail at breaking pitches, you know this problem probably won’t get better over time. Just look at the Yankees this year. By carrying nearly $100 million worth of players on the disabled list, they are unable to field a competent lineup to go with their excellent pitching staff.
Alternatively, the Angels could decide to eat a hefty portion of the contracts in order to offload them on another team. But that doesn’t solve the financial crunch the club is facing, especially when you consider the money they will need to spend on replacements. Neither of those options seem very good. But there is a third option, a way out…
The Angels can use Mike Trout in a trade to unload all of their unwanted salary.
Trading Trout may seem like a ludicrous idea. At 21, he’s arguably the best player in the game. Teams with the financial strength of the Angels don’t deal superstars; ideally he’ll be manning center field in Orange County for the next twenty years. Those are just the baseball reasons. Trading Trout would be a public relations nightmare for the club as it fights for attention in the ultra-competitive Los Angeles market, and Arte Moreno isn’t the type of owner to readily admit defeat.
But objectively, trading Trout to unload at the very least the Pujols and Hamilton contracts may be the most prudent baseball move. The Angels cannot be considered serious contenders in the AL with the roster they currently have, and with the farm system in shambles there’s no immediate help on the way. Dipping back into the free agent pool isn’t really an option either; that’s how they got here in the first place. Even if they could splurge on more free agents, this is a Swiss cheese roster with holes at third base, catcher, and, most glaringly, in the starting rotation.
The reality of the situation is that it’s impossible for one player to completely carry a baseball team. For a player to drive himself in it typically requires that he hit the ball 400 feet. And unless you’re Bugs Bunny, good luck trying to get opposing players out without guys behind you to catch the ball. As good as Mike Trout is, having one superstar does not equate to a playoff contender. That’s why the Rangers had to trade A-Rod after the 2003 season, as productive as he was.
Now, in order for the trading of Trout and those huge contracts to make sense, the Angels would need to get prospects to revitalize their farm system. As onerous as the Pujols/Hamilton contracts are, the inclusion of a young, cheap talent on Trout’s level should bring back some prospects in a trade. Would the nouveau riche Dodgers be willing to give up Zach Lee or Joc Pederson in order to assemble a Trout-Puig-Kemp outfield? If money truly is no issue to the Dodgers, they could then eat the Pujols/Hamilton contracts and deal those players to restock their own system. If the Tigers fall short of a World Series again, would free-spending owner Mike Illitch take on those contracts to assemble a Trout-Cabrera-Fielder triumvirate in the middle of their order? Unlike the Dodgers, the Tigers could at least utilize Pujols and Hamilton in a 1B-LF-DH rotation. At the very least, these are the types of ideas the Angels could explore.
At the end of the day, this is more of a thought exercise than anything. Trading Mike Trout to offload these enormous contracts doesn’t seem within the range of possibilities for the Angels. But it’s hard to argue that they are better off with Pujols and Hamilton even if they do keep Trout, lest they become the Zoilo Almonte All-Stars. Dealing these players would provide a necessary boost to their depleted farm systems. It would also allow the Angels to become players in free agency again, but rather than blow all their cash on a couple players they can acquire many more affordable pieces, similar to what the Red Sox did this past offseason with Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli. But for now, it’s clear that the Angels’ gambit to win a title immediately after inking those oversized contracts has failed, and it may be time to move on.