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OC Register: Mike Trout’s lifetime contract with the Angels is just part of latest trend for MLB superstars

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There’s a closed Facebook Group consisting of exactly 30 members, all from the baby boomer generation. Only the chairman of every Major League Baseball team is allowed to join. One day, someone’s sister shared a meme about how the athletes they rooted for growing up used to play for one team. Sandy Koufax. Jerry West. Jim Brown. Maurice Richard. The meme was shared with the Group. It received 30 thumbs up. Quickly, every owner began negotiating a massive contract extension with his star player. A year later, here we are.

OK, that’s not how it happened. I think.

The impending 10-year, $360 million contract extension between Mike Trout and the Angels did not mark the beginning or end of a trend. It isn’t even the richest contract in baseball history if you factor for inflation. That distinction still belongs to Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year contract with the Texas Rangers in 2001. So we can try to gauge the impact of Trout’s contract in dollars and cents, but that exercise requires a little math and a lot of patience.

Between the cost of inflation and Trout’s massive potential, we might even call a $360 million windfall for the world’s best baseball player a “team-friendly deal.” Historically, most contract extensions were. Unless Trout wants to test the open market as a 40-year-old in 2031, he might never reach free agency in his life.

The same might someday be said for Clayton Kershaw, Nolan Arenado, Joey Votto, Stephen Strasburg and Buster Posey. Other stars will surely follow their lead. This trend can have a measurable impact: A child born in 2019 will never see these players wearing a uniform other than what they’re wearing now (with a little help from the contractual fine print involving no-trade clauses and opt-out provisions, of course). That hypothetical meme being shared among the grandparents of today might actually have some shelf life, at least among baseball fans. Whether you believe this to be good or bad, it represents a generational reset of fans’ expectations.

How did we arrive at this point? What really made the Trout extension possible?

Let’s start with some dollar figures. Only eight pitchers have won 120 games this decade. At 30 years old, Rick Porcello is the youngest, followed by Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and Gio Gonzalez. Porcello will make $21 million in 2019, the final year of an extension he signed with the Red Sox in 2015. Kershaw is getting $93 million over the next three years under the terms of an extension he signed with the Dodgers in November. Hernandez is getting $27 million in 2019, the final year of an extension he signed with the Mariners in 2013.

And then there’s Gonzalez.

All of 33 years old, Gonzalez had the temerity to test the free agent market this winter. His reward: a minor league contract with the New York Yankees. Gonzalez can earn up to $12 million if he makes the Yankees’ major league roster, but only $3 million of that is guaranteed. For a pitcher who hasn’t missed a start since June 2014 – and has a near-average 3.75 ERA since then – that’s hardly a reward at all. Gonzalez had to wait until two weeks remained in spring training to receive it.

Gonzalez was reputedly healthy. He shouldn’t have failed any physicals. Unfortunately for other prospective free agents, this was part of a larger pattern.

Outfielder Adam Jones, who signed a long contract extension with the Orioles in 2012, was a free agent for the first time this winter. Still only 33 years old, he had to settle for a one-year, $3 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks on March 11. Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who signed a long contract extension with the Rockies in 2011, was a free agent for the second time this winter. Still only 33, he settled for a minor-league contract with the Cleveland Indians this week. Pitcher Dallas Keuchel, a free agent for the first time in his career at age 31, is still waiting, as is Craig Kimbrel, 30, among the best closers in the game.

The message to players this winter was clear: get those guaranteed dollars while you can, for as long as you can.

The only means to changing free agency is through collective bargaining. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the Players’ Association expires after the 2021 season. The two sides recently pledged to begin talks toward their next pact. Maybe the basic mechanism for paying players will change appropriately three years from now. Today, these are the rules. “It’s an unfortunate situation,” Jones told reporters in Scottsdale last week, “especially for guys over 30 who I believe still have a lot in the tank, a lot to offer this game.”

That brings us back to Trout. He was in a unique place, and not just because of his talent.

In Anaheim, monuments matter. Consider the deal Albert Pujols signed with the Angels as a free agent in December 2011. Pujols received a $3 million bonus for collecting his 3,000th hit. He’ll get another $7 million if he hits 763 home runs, which would break the all-time record. Pujols will begin this season sitting on 633 home runs. He needs to average 44 home runs in the final three years of his contract to hit the jackpot. As Pujols has tracked down each milestone, a giant tracker was erected beyond the outfield wall at Angel Stadium. That won’t stop if Pujols can barely circle the bases.

Angels owner Arte Moreno took care of Pujols with a luxury suite at home games, a hotel suite on the road, and a 10-year personal services contract that kicks in once his contract expires after the 2021 season. I would be surprised if the terms of Trout’s contract do not contain similar perks. Each is a living Hall of Famer destined for Cooperstown’s inner circle, and that monument matters in Anaheim too.

Trout grew up rooting for the Yankees. Bryce Harper publicly recruited Trout to join the Phillies. In the end, neither of these things mattered. There’s a new set of rules for baseball’s future Hall of Famers – regardless of what analytics have to say about their aging curve and dollars per WAR. The team that loves you the most as you approach age 30 is the same team that drafted you as a teenager. Turn that into a Facebook meme.

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