Never mind the crocuses in bloom or the red red robin bobbin' along. In our house, the first harbingers of spring are the Angels ticket offers filling our email boxes.
That time has come and with it the most important question of the coming season: Why haven't the Angels signed Mike Trout to a long-term contract already?
It's a business question as much as a sports question, maybe more so. In advance of the last two seasons the team made two eye-popping deals -- signing Albert Pujols in 2011 for $254 million over 10 years and Josh Hamilton a year later for $125 million over five years. Neither has performed up to snuff (so far), and Angels season-ticket sales actually fell last spring.
So what's in the larder for this year? The team has one genuine star of the future. It's Trout, who in his second season at age 22 equaled or bettered his rookie-of-the-year record in almost every offensive category, has already appeared in two All-Star Games and came in second both years in American League MVP voting.
Why are we even debating this? Trout is the face of the Angels for the next 10 years, maybe 15, maybe longer. He's the Angels' Mickey Mantle, a player he actually resembles in action. Yet the team cheaped out on him last year, renewing his rookie deal for $510,000, just $20,000 over the MLB minimum. They can cram another cheeseparing contract down his throat for 2014, but the following year he becomes eligible for salary arbitration and after the 2017 season he's a free agent.
Back in August and September there was a boomlet in stories about a possible long-term contract for Trout. The number being thrown around was an astronomical but not necessarily irrational $300 million for 10 years. The obstacle, according to writers such as Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com, was baseball's luxury tax, which for 2014 kicks in once a team's payroll exceeds $189 million. For the Angels, the tax would be 17.5% of everything spent over that threshold. (The rate goes up for consecutive breaches.) The contracts for Pujols, Hamilton, and Vernon Wells -- the Wells deal is still on the Angels' books even though he isn't -- are the big factors in the team's luxury-tax calculation, but they leave plenty of room for a monster deal for Trout.
It's possible that team owner Arte Moreno and General Manager Jerry DiPoto are talking with Trout's people even now, and for all we know a deal could be announced tomorrow. But if so, it's a well-kept secret.
What makes Mike Trout worth so much money? Here's where the business of baseball gets interesting. Strictly based on his statistics, the likelihood is that he'll continue to improve for the better part of a decade before he peaks and begins a long, slow decline (albeit still at an elite level). Starting in 2015 he could collect well more than $50 million from arbitrators over three years. His current trajectory points toward a record free-agency deal after that, from someone.
That's based on his numbers in the field. But then there are the intangibles. Trout is a potential symbol of the Angels' commitment to competitive quality over the long-term. Among franchise players, the closest comparison probably is the Yankees' Derek Jeter, who entered negotiations for a long-term contract in his fourth year. That deal fell through -- he got $10 million from the arbitrator instead. Jeter signed a 10-year deal for $189 million for 2001 and beyond, a year ahead of free agency.
That suggests that the Angels could still keep Trout hanging for a couple of years, but why do so? The team has a long way to go to persuade fans that it knows more about competing than signing a marquee player or two per year. Deals for players in their 30s, even when they're Albert Pujols, are always crapshoots.
The Angels' problem in recent years is that they expect the fans to believe their press releases. In 2011, after the team subjected ticket buyers to an ordering ordeal that would make healthcare.gov look like a model of flawless execution, I asked what would happen "if the rest of the team doesn't play up to Pujols' level, or if the superstar has a bad season or (God forbid) blows out his knee? Then the Angels will have to fall back on their cherished reputation for great fan relations." By then, its reputation for fan relations was zero.
Writing as an Angels fan, I've never been so depressed to be proved right two third-place seasons in a row. If Pujols recovers from his foot injury, Hamilton plays up to his best season (or half-season), and Trout merely stays within his trend line, the Angels could cream the division, even the league. Last year's insulting treatment of Trout casts a shadow, and we still don't know what he'll be paid for 2014.
Businesses that glom onto a good thing often know that the right course is to erect a wall around it and not let anyone else close. The Coca-Cola formula isn't even patented, because then it would have to be revealed to the world; instead, it's locked in a safe in Atlanta. After "The Hangover" made a mint, its producers signed up the stars for two sequels (nobody says these deals have to work out). Arthur Conan Doyle understood so well the popularity of his creation Sherlock Holmes that he even brought him back from the dead.
The best way for the Angels to show they know how to stay in the hunt is to go all-in on their future, now. It's good business.
Tell me what you think: Should the Angels give Trout a contract?
Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK
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