TEMPE, Ariz. — Mike Trout could be the next to join baseball's growing fraternity of young stars who sign long-term contracts before they reach arbitration or free agency; the center fielder is in negotiations with the Angels on an extension that is likely to pay him well into nine figures.
Trout wouldn't be the first young Angels slugger to parlay a superb start into a handsome payday. Tim Salmon, the American League rookie of the year in 1993, signed a four-year, $7.5-million deal the following spring, with one hopeful eye toward the future and one wary eye on the past.
The dollar figures weren't in the same ballpark, but Salmon's decision 20 years ago was like Trout's today: Is the security of a long-term deal more important than the millions more you might earn through salary arbitration and the early years of free agency?
Salmon had a smashing debut season, hitting .283 with 31 homers and 95 runs batted in. He'd also had his jaw shattered and his face temporarily disfigured by a high-and-tight fastball in 1990 when he played for Class A Palm Springs.
"I was confident in my ability, but I had an appreciation for things like health and risk," said Salmon, who retired in 2006. "I was hit in the face by pitches twice in the minor leagues, so I know how quickly it can end. You can't walk away from that first guaranteed contract. At the time, that was the mind-set."
It still is, for the most part. The Atlanta Braves this winter secured five players, including shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who signed a seven-year, $58-million deal after one full year in the big leagues, and first baseman Freddie Freeman, who signed an eight-year, $135-million deal after three seasons.
Slugger Paul Goldschmidt had one year of service time when he signed a five-year, $32-million deal with Arizona last winter, joining a long list of players such as Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki, Brian McCann and Ryan Braun who signed their first huge deals well before arbitration.
Trout, 22, appears on the verge of signing the richest contract ever for a pre-arbitration player.
The deals seem like a win-win for players and teams. Players set themselves up financially for life at a time when their peers are making near the major league minimum, now $500,000. Contracts are guaranteed, so players get paid if they suffer major injuries.
Teams secure their best young players at discounted prices, they avoid the contentious arbitration process, and they show they are serious about winning.
"You're locking up a core player, a special player who is going to help you win games and World Series," Arizona General Manager Kevin Towers said. "He's going to wear the uniform for quite some time, and fans can get behind him, as opposed to knowing two or three years down the road he's going to test free agency."
But there are risks for players, who could lose millions in potential earnings, and teams, who could be stuck with bad contracts if players are injured or underperform.
"When you get great talents at values that are dramatically discounted due to early payment, it's normally very beneficial for the clubs, which is why they continue to do it," said agent Scott Boras, who prefers his clients test the market as free agents. "I've seen teams save $80 million to $100 million on these deals."
Boras points to Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, clients who turned down lucrative offers in their first two years of arbitration and went on to sign massive free-agent deals. Ellsbury went to the New York Yankees for seven years and $153 million; Choo to Texas for seven years and $130 million.
Boras said Ellsbury's initial offers from Boston were for $32 million and $50 million. Choo's offers from Cleveland were for $27 million and $42 million.
"I go over the probabilities of every factor that relates to their performance, the contract, the markets, their durability, risk factors, and then you let them make the decision," Boras said. "After receiving that information, my clients have usually been more patient than the players who have accepted these."
Longtime agent Paul Cohen goes through a similar process, but most of his clients, including Longoria, Tulowitzki, Tim Hudson and Nick Markakis, have jumped on such offers.
"Our view is you never turn down your first fortune, especially if you can keep your free-agent years intact at age 29 or 30," Cohen said. "Some guys will outperform their deals, some will underperform, some will get hurt.
"You have to be very careful when you're doing this to not be a cowboy or cavalier because you don't know when that 'oops' moment is going to happen."
One year after hitting .239 with 22 homers and 64 RBIs to win AL rookie-of-the-year honors in 2004, Bobby Crosby, a power-hitting shortstop and Cohen client, signed a five-year, $13-million deal with Oakland. A year later, he was tabbed a most-valuable-player candidate.
"People were asking us why we signed that deal," Cohen said. "They thought he would make $100 million."
Then the "oops" moments started piling up. Crosby sustained fractures in both wrists when he was hit by pitches; his ankle was shattered in a home-plate collision; his ribs were cracked when he was hit by a pitch; and a disk in his back ruptured when he dived for a ball.
Crosby averaged 103 games, eight homers and 40 RBIs a season in the final four years of the deal, hitting .239. He was released after 2009 and retired in 2010.
"By 29, he was a shadow of himself — injuries ended his career," Cohen said. "The point is, you just don't know."
Crosby, 34, lives in a high-end gated community in South Orange County. He doesn't have to work, but he did begin scouting and recruiting for Cohen's firm last year.
"I was very lucky," Crosby said. "If I hadn't done that deal, honestly, after my third year, I would have been sent to the minor leagues. My life would be a lot different than it is now. It propelled me to live a lifestyle I want to live."
Cleveland signed Grady Sizemore to a six-year, $23.5-million deal in 2006, but injuries limited the outfielder to 104 games in the final two years of the deal, when he hit .220 with 10 homers and 45 RBIs and made $13.5 million.
Teams can mitigate risk by insuring long-term deals, but premiums are expensive, running as high as 10% of a contract's annual value. Their best bet is to invest in the right players.
"First and foremost is character — are they the type of people you want long term, who will represent your organization the way you want?" Towers said. "Next is skill set. Have we seen the best of them or are they going to get better?"
Towers has "more of a comfort level" signing position players than pitchers "because you're dealing with more of an injury risk with an arm," he said. He also considers body types and a player's lifestyle.
"What are their hobbies?" Towers said. "Are they drinkers, smokers, dippers? Are they in the weight room? Do they take care of their bodies in and out of season?"
Trout, the AL MVP runner-up in 2012 and 2013, is not considered high-risk, but his elite status and the fact he is four years away from free agency make negotiations tricky.
The Angels don't have to pay Trout like an unrestricted free agent, but they don't want to risk low-balling him. There could also be pressure on Trout to demand more.
"I didn't have the union saying hold out for more as a rookie," Salmon said. "Mike is arguably the best player in the game. There could be external pressures on him to stretch that bar, to hold out for that big contract, because he is that premier player."
A six-year extension starting in 2015 would secure Trout through three arbitration years and three free-agent years and allow him to be a free agent at 29.
The Angels prefer a deal of seven years or more, but they don't want to push too hard.
"It's a good problem to have, and I'm sure the Angels are embracing it," Athletics GM Billy Beane said. "They have a very talented young player."
Though the Angels hold Trout's rights for four more years, there is an urgency to complete a deal this spring.
"The closer a player gets to free agency, the more apt he is to test it," Towers said. "If you wait too long and he keeps posting big numbers, he's more apt to go find out what he's worth when 29 other clubs can bid on his services."
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