Red Sox star Mookie Betts won’t break Mike Trout’s record contract
By Sean Penney
Mike Trout’s new deal raises the bar for what Mookie Betts may earn but don’t expect the Boston Red Sox star to set a new record with his contract.
Every time a player sets a new standard for what superstars are worth, our instinct is to wonder what that means for the next great player to negotiate their next contract. Mike Trout‘s extension with the Los Angeles Angeles raises the bar for what Mookie Betts will strive for. That doesn’t mean the Boston Red Sox star will break the record Trout set with his deal.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports that Trout has agreed to a 12-year, $430 million contract extension with the Angels. The total value of the contract obliterates the record Bryce Harper set when he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for $330 million over 13 years. The average annual value of $35.83 million tops Zack Greinke‘s previous record of $34.4 million.
USA Today’s Bob Nightengale added that the deal is actually a 10-year, $363.5 million contract extension on top of the $66.5 million that Trout was already owed over the next two seasons. The total of his remaining deal plus the extension adds up to $430 million, a clarification that could matter a great deal when comparing this contract to what Betts may earn.
Betts has never shown any indication that he’s open to an early extension. To be clear, he’s in no hurry to leave Boston. Betts simply feels that he can maximize his earnings by going year-to-year through the arbitration process until he hits free agency. Let’s assume that the mega-deal that looms in Betts’ future won’t begin until 2021 when he’s eligible to test the market.
Trout was two years away from reaching free agency, the same as Betts. Working in his favor is that Betts should now hit the open market as the undisputed top position player in his free agent class without having to compete with Trout for offers. He’ll be a year younger than Trout will be when the extension portion of his deal kicks in. Betts will have the benefit as a free agent of other suitors potentially driving up the price in a heated bidding war (although that didn’t seem to be the case for Harper). Market conditions could tilt more in favor of the players over the next two years.
Despite those advantages, Betts seems unlikely to earn more than $430 million as a free agent.
The number of years on the deal is obviously a significant factor in determining the total value. Manny Machado set a record for the largest contract in MLB history last month when he signed with the San Diego Padres for 10-years, $300 million. Harper broke that record weeks later with a longer deal at a lower average annual value. Trout bested them both in terms of total value and average annual value to raise the bar for elite position players.
Betts will be 28 years old if he waits to negotiate as a free agent. If the 26-year old Harper signed for 13 years and the 27-year old Trout’s new deal lasts 12 years, it’s hard to believe that Betts will command more than 10, maybe 11 years.
We shouldn’t assume that Betts will earn more than Trout per season either. Even die-hard Red Sox fans have to admit that Trout is the superior player. Betts is coming off a career year in which he earned AL MVP honors and led the majors with 10.9 WAR, while Trout finished second at 10.2 WAR. However, Trout is a two-time MVP who has been producing at this level since his rookie season in 2012. Trout has amassed 63.8 WAR over the last seven seasons or 9.1 WAR per year. Betts only has four full seasons in the big leagues, over which time he’s compiled 32.9 WAR or 8.2 WAR per year. One season besting Trout doesn’t dethrone him for the title of best player in baseball.
Trout’s record-breaking $35.83 million average annual value rises to $36.35 million if we focus only on the 10 extension years. Betts’ value seems likely to fall in the middle. Enough to set a new record for AAV over fewer years while falling just shy of the AAV in Trout’s extension years. A 10-year, $360 million deal is a fair estimate for Betts.
For the sake of argument, let’s explore the best case scenario for Betts. He wins two more MVP awards and surpasses Trout as the “best player in baseball” before hitting free agency. That, along with the other aforementioned factors working in his favor, should earn Betts more than what Trout will make in his extension years. But how much more? $37 million, $38 million per year? He would need to exceed an AAV of $43 million to top Trout’s total value on a 10-year deal. There’s no chance he beats Trout’s AAV by that much.
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The only way Betts beats Trout’s deal is by getting 12+ years. Not impossible for a 28-year-old but there’s no clear example of that type of contract where the deal actually worked out for both sides. The Detroit Tigers gave Miguel Cabrera an 8-year extension that didn’t kick in until his age 33 season and the New York Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez a 10-year deal after he opted out of his previous contract at age 32. Both deals became an albatross long before they expired (Cabrera’s deal runs through 2023 and he’s produced below replacement level value over the last two seasons). These are cautionary tales, not modal examples to base negotiations on.
The free agent deals of Machado and Harper plus the extensions for Trout and Nolan Arenado set the precedent for where negotiations begin for Betts. Based on what we learned from their deals, Betts should expect a 10-year deal with an AAV close to Trout’s or a longer deal with an AAV closer to Harper’s. Maybe he makes a push for $400 million if he receives an 11-year deal, a possibility if he argues that Trout will be 29 when his extension years begin. That still leaves him well short of Trout’s $430 million total.
Let me remind you though that Trout’s staggering total includes the two remaining years on his deal. Betts will be paid $20 million in 2019 and could push for $30 million in his final year of arbitration. Add that approximately $50 million to any 10-year deal he earns in free agency and he should be right in the same ballpark as Trout over the next dozen years.