Winter is coming. The Angels will soon enter into a crucial off-season where they need to revamp their roster in a hurry so that they can contend for the World Series in 2014. They've got several roster holes to fill and limited money and prospect resources with which to fill them. But they also have one other very important item to tick off of their agenda: signing Mike Trout to a long-term contract extension.
Or at least they better figure out a way to sign him long-term or that metaphorical winter will come four years from now and last for a very long, very cold time. The problem is that Trout is not your typical pre-arbitration case due to the fact that he is the most amazing player ever. There will be no tempting him with the promise of guaranteed riches in exchange for granting the team a substantial discount over the life of the contract including the forfeiture of free agent seasons. Basically, Trout is a unique and special unicorn. The rules of negotiating pre-arbitration extensions don't apply to him because he and his his agent know that all he has to do is not get hurt and he will spend three years setting arbitration award records before hitting free agency at age 26 where he will get paid all of the money.
Maybe Trout won't be motivated by that potential windfall and will happily settle for whatever the Angels offer, but maybe he won't. As we saw with Zack Greinke this last off-season, some players embrace the mercenary nature of the sport and just want as much money as they can possibly make. If Trout falls into that latter bucket, Arte Moreno and whichever puppet he allows to serve as GM are going to have to dig deep into their bag of tricks to prevent Trout from testing free agent waters at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Must-Trade Clause
The big fear for Angel fans is that Trout's heart may not be in Anaheim. We have heard quite a bit about how he grew up idolizing Derek Jeter but that he was also a big Phillies fan. We have seen a few times even just this season how his entire hometown comes out (and that is only a slight exaggeration) to see him play whenever he plays anywhere near Millville, New Jersey. Knowing full well that he is going to get a massive payday, Trout might be a player more inclined to not worry about getting the absolute maximum payday and instead just look to sign with the team that he favors the most. For a guy who seems to still have strong roots back east, he still lives in his parents' basement during the off-season, for crying out loud, that might mean he is just going to sign with the Phillies or Yankees because it has always been his dream.
If that is the case, the Angels can't really stop him, but they might be able to delay him. While money may not be his top motivator, it still has to mean something since he doesn't have any guaranteed riches yet. What the Angels could do is give him an opportunity to have his cake and eat it too. Offer Trout an eight-year extension to give him the security that he is set for life. That by itself might not work if he is hellbent on getting back to the East Coast as soon as possible. The incentive to get him to sign would be the inclusion of a "must-trade" clause. The way that would work would be to give Trout the right after the sixth year of his extension to demand a trade to a negotiated list of teams and the Angels are then obligated to trade Trout to one of those teams before Opening Day.
That isn't a great deal for the Halos, but it does protect their long-term interests. Not only do they get cost certainty through his arbitration years, but they also get two years of Trout's free agency that coincide with his prime. On top of that, it gives them a way to make sure that they get a rich return for Trout when he leaves rather than have him walk away for nothing but a draft pick in free agency. The nature of the trade demand will probably mean that they won't get a full value return, but even 90 cents on the dollar for Trout is pretty great. The real kicker though is that it puts the onus on Trout to "be the bad guy" and demand the trade. The negative media reaction might be enough of a deterrent to keep him from exercising the clause. Ideally though the Angels will use those two extra years of having him in the franchise to convince him that he really does want to stick around for the long haul.
Team-based vesting options
A popular contract mechanism in baseball of late has been the use of vesting options. If Player X throws so many innings or gets so many plate appearances, then a year that was a team option gets automatically picked up. This is the mechanism that stuck the Angels with Bobby Abreu one year beyond when his welcome had worn out. The Angels could use that same mechanism but turn it on its head in order to entice Trout to sign an extension.
Another big concern voiced about the Angels' ability to interest Trout in an extension is that, well, they haven't been very good and have a questionable using future. There is a real fear that Trout will decide that this team is headed in the wrong direction and will bolt for a contender at the first opportunity. If a winner is what Trout wants, the Angels can play to that desire by offering him a contract laden with incentives that are triggered by team performance. The deal would start out as a five-year contract with several years of player options attached. Over time though, those player options would convert to team options or get picked up automatically if the team wins a certain number of games in those five years or advances to the playoffs a certain number of times. They could even tie the compensation level to the team's success. The year 2020 option could vest at $30 million if the Angels win a wild card spot once in the previous seasons, but if they win the World Series, it could vest at $25 million.
From Trout's perspective, it gives him the guaranteed money but it also gives him a guarantee that he isn't going to waste the prime of his career playing for a mediocre team. If they don't win, he gets set free. The Angels would then be the "bad guy" in that scenario as they didn't make the right moves to build a winner to keep Trout who was more than willing to stay.
Right of first refusal
If the end goal is for the Angels to just keep Trout as long as possible, they could pursue an arrangement where they get the right of first refusal when he hits free agency. In exchange for some kind of discount on the average annual value, Trout could sign a five- or six-year extension with the Halos so that he can hit free agency at what should be the peak of his value. This grants the Angels a bit of savings in exchange for risking losing him at such a young age, but the real hook to the deal is that in exchange for his early release into the free agent waters, the Angels would get the rights of first refusal. Essentially, he becomes a restricted free agent. He can still field offers from every team, only whenever he accepts the offer, the Angels get a chance to match it and keep him in Halo Red. For Trout, the allure is he gets to hit the open market and search for the best price. It would be somewhat depressed potentially by teams not thinking it is worth the trouble because the Angels would likely match whatever offer, but there will still surely be plenty of teams hoping they can steal him away with a rich enough offer.
The big risk here is that some team might try and take advantage of the arrangement and throw a stupid offer at Trout in hopes that the Angels match it. It would be a pretty risky gamble, but one could certainly imagine the Rangers engaging in that level of gamesmanship in order to cripple the Halos' financial flexibility for the next decade.
Of course, none of these contract mechanisms will be of any use if Trout has already made up his mind that he isn't interested in signing long-term in Anaheim. They still have four years to convince him to change his mind, but it isn't hard to imagine him wanting to get away from a team that has been plagued by falling short of lofty expectations, a meddling owner and front office turmoil for his two seasons in the majors.