Let’s stop beating around the bush. No more playing games. You’ve been thinking about it forever. I’ve been thinking about it forever. It’s always there in conversation, lingering somewhere just underneath. When it’s on your mind, you’re not sure how it’s ever not on your mind. It’s maybe the greatest trade hypothetical in baseball today. So let’s just try to figure this out, before the actual offseason starts happening. Would it make sense for the Angels to package Mike Trout and Albert Pujols together for nothing?
The actual question that gets asked gets asked in varying forms, but that’s what’s always right at the core. Does Pujols’ negative value cancel out Trout’s positive value? It’s not even that difficult a question to address. Last March, Dave Cameron referred to Mike Trout as the king of trade value, now and forever. During the summer, Dave asserted that Albert Pujols has the lowest trade value in the majors. This is why Trout and Pujols have been selected: They represent the very best and the very worst of something. Let’s proceed so we can never have to talk about this again — for a week or two.
We can’t do anything unless we’re comfortable making some assumptions. If we can’t do that, we have no choice but to just sit here passively and allow the future to play itself out. Better to pretend we’re doing something other than gradually dying. We’ll have to guess at the future productivity of Trout and Pujols, and we’ll also have to guess at the market rate for wins. Projections help us with the former. Recent history helps us with the latter. And this is an important point to understand: We don’t need to worry that much about accuracy. This is all about just finding the right ballpark. This isn’t a science experiment.
There are also some things we just know. Trout, for example, is under contract for the next six years, for a total of $144.5 million. Pujols is under contract for the next seven years, for a total of $189 million. No guesswork here. Pujols’ contract includes some bonuses, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s pretend those bonuses don’t exist. They certainly shouldn’t do much to tip any scales. So this is what we’re trying to figure out: Trout’s projected value above $144.5 million, and Pujols’ projected value below $189 million.
What’s Steamer say about 2015? Steamer projects Trout for 8.7 WAR over a full season. He was just worth 7.8, over a full season, so let’s be conservative and start Trout at 8 WAR for next season. I know this undershoots the objective projection, but I’m trying to make Pujols look as good as is realistically possible, and with Trout you have to consider some regression to the mean for any extraordinary superstar. Meanwhile, Steamer projects Pujols for 3.1 WAR over most of a full season. He was just worth 3.3 in a full season, so let’s just make things easy and put him at 3. He’s coming up on his 35th birthday, and he’s developed a spotty record of health.
Those are projections for 2015. Trout’s under control through 2020; Pujols is under control through 2021. For Trout, let’s assume he’s peaked, and build in a very gradual decline. For Pujols, let’s chop off half a win each year, as is customary for aging players. I’m left with 45 projected wins from Trout over six seasons, and 10.5 projected wins from Pujols over seven. We’re almost there. Now we just need a simple dollar-WAR estimate.
I settled on $7.25 million. I talked to Dave and compromised, but this can certainly be argued in either direction. But let’s go with it for now. Trout, then, would “deserve” about $326 million for his projected wins. Pujols, about $76 million. Trout, therefore, would be left with a surplus value of about $182 million, while Pujols would have a surplus value of about -$113 million. Add those together and you still get nearly $70 million. In other words, by these estimates, Trout and Pujols together would still have positive value.
What if you used $8 million, instead of $7.25 million? The gap only grows. Trout would have a surplus value of about $216 million, while Pujols would have a surplus value of about -$105 million. By that estimate you’d need two Pujols contracts to cancel out the Trout contract. And obviously, things get even crazier if you think Trout sustains his 8 WAR to 10 WAR level of play, or if you give Pujols a more aggressive aging curve. After all, as recently as 2013, Trout was worth more than 10 wins, and Pujols was worth less than one. Pujols is almost 35; Trout is 23.
By surplus values, Trout’s contract more than makes up for Pujols’ contract. It’s not even particularly close. So we can make this even more spectacular and fold in Josh Hamilton, who’s due $90 million over the next three years. Steamer projects him to be worth about two wins, and he’s 33 and a half, so let’s say Hamilton is worth 4.5 WAR over the remainder of his deal. Going back to that $7.25 million per WAR estimate, we give Hamilton a surplus value of -$58 million. To summarize those numbers:
$7.25 million per WAR (estimate)
- Trout: +$182 million value
- Pujols: -$113 million value
- Hamilton: -$58 million value
- Total: +$11 million value
$8 million per WAR (estimate)
- Trout: +$216 million value
- Pujols: -$105 million value
- Hamilton: -$54 million value
- Total: +$56 million value
Everything — pretty much everything — has been estimated, but the point doesn’t really change no matter how you alter the numbers. Albert Pujols has a terrible contract. Josh Hamilton has a terrible contract. Mike Trout has an amazing contract. Based on the way that we understand these numbers, Trout’s contract makes up for Pujols’ contract and Hamilton’s contract, together. That’s how powerful it is, and if you bump up the dollars-per-WAR estimate, or if you give Trout a stronger projection, it’s all the more remarkable. The Angels have Trout signed to a steal of a deal. That undersells the reality by about 10 times.
Remember, though, the values are based on the free-agent market rates for a win, and no team tries to build an entire roster like that. No team could afford it. Every team, to some extent, depends on young players contributing a lot for a little, so that a roster can affordably generate between 35 WAR and 45 WAR. That’s how you get into the playoffs. The Angels are not making the most of their money.
Also understand the degree to which this is nothing but a super-hypothetical. Trout has full no-trade protection. Pujols has full no-trade protection. Hamilton has full no-trade protection. That can, in theory, be overcome, but in 2017, the three players will be due almost a combined $80 million. You’d be pricing out almost every team in baseball. The Yankees might be able to make space. Same with the Red Sox and the Dodgers. The Cubs, perhaps, with TV money on the way. But more than anything else, this is a thought experiment.
But it’s ever so much fun to think about. And it serves as a reminder of why the Angels aren’t totally screwed, despite having bad money on the books. Joining that bad money is some really good money. The Pujols contract looks like a disaster, and the Hamilton contract looks like a mess, but where those might sink a lesser franchise, Trout alone can keep this bloat floating. All together, Trout, Pujols and Hamilton make for a reasonable big-money investment. It’s one of those guys who’s doing all of the work, but then baseball’s a team sport, now isn’t it?
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.