Mike Trout is the best baseball player alive today. No one with any sense will dispute that. Whether you’re an old-school fan distrustful of new numbers or a Bill James disciple who lives and dies by WAR and ISO, there aren’t any legitimate arguments for anyone else.
What’s unfortunate about Trout’s greatness is that it has been executed in relative obscurity. Tom Brady is acclaimed as the NFL’s GOAT and is constantly the subject of sports media fascination. The same goes for LeBron James, the best basketball player of his generation by a large margin and has a case for being the best in NBA history. In baseball’s past eras, the likes of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Ken Griffey, Jr have been the poster boys of the game.
But Trout hasn’t attained the same level of exposure. He could be a game-changer in advertising baseball to a younger generation if he were to get it. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred decried this over the All-Star Break, irrationally slamming his league’s best performer for choosing not to market himself on social media in the style of NFL and NBA players.
Trout’s attitude toward self-promotion (which, as Manfred should know, are totally his own to decide) aside, there is another big reason that Trout hasn’t had the exposure that other players of his caliber have: he’s almost never been on the game’s biggest stage. Trout is about to finish his eighth year in the league, but the Los Angeles Angels have only qualified for the playoffs once in that time. Even that appearance was all too brief as the Kansas City Royals quickly dispatched the Angels in a three-game sweep of the ALDS.
That’s what made the news that the Angels are planning on offering Trout a contract extension to head off his free agency in 2020 and essentially make him an Angel for life is concerning for those looking for the outfielder to be the face of the league—but it might not be in Trout’s best interests to do so in any case.
The Angels are in a real bind. They’re not good enough to contend for a playoff spot. They enter the weekend a game under .500, already eliminated from the AL West race and 16 games out of the AL Wild Card. The bigger problem: they don’t have all that much hope of any dramatic improvement in the years before Trout hits free agency.
The farm system in Anaheim is awful. In 2016 ESPN’s Keith Law called it “by far the worst system I have ever seen,” and while they’ve clawed their way back in the two years since, all the way to 19th in this year’s rankings, it’s still not the system that can make an immediate impact and vault them to the same level as Houston.
With such a weak system, significant trade acquisitions are unlikely, which means the Angels’ only way to get an impact player on the team is through free agency. Given the misses they’ve had on the market the last few years—Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and others—that probably doesn’t inspire confidence.
The team has a bright spot in Shohei Ohtani, but his current elbow issues are a major question mark. Even if he plays the entire 2019 season as a DH while he rehabs from Tommy John surgery as a pitcher, it’s unknown whether his hitting will be affected—or whether hitting during his rehab will cause even more problems.
Hit the market
With the Angels such a question mark, it wouldn’t exactly make sense for Trout to bind himself to the team for life. Maybe he has developed a loyalty to his team or a love of the lifestyle in Anaheim, but no child lays in his bed at night dreaming of finishing in third place.
If Trout wants to compete for a title, his best chance is likely elsewhere. Angels GM Billy Eppler could surprise everyone and prove otherwise, but unless the team makes a serious playoff push between now and the end of the 2020 season, Trout’s best option is to test the market.
Regardless of the Angels’ competitiveness, it’s in Trout’s own personal interest to wait until the 2018-19 free agent class sorts itself out. This winter will be one of the biggest markets in years, with a rare number of players, like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, entering free agency still in the middle of their prime—just as Trout will be when he hits the market. Trout is, of course, more than secure financially, but if he wants to get top value, he’ll wait until guys like Harper set the market before he even thinks about talking extension.
We still don’t know whether the Angels will succeed in making Trout a one-club man if the player is smart, he will wait until he can field offers from everyone before deciding whether he wants to tether himself to them for the rest of his career.
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