Agent Craig Landis is not happy, and he's more than happy to tell you why.
Landis is the agent for Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim phenom outfielder Mike Trout, who is fresh off his first full season in Major League Baseball. It was an amazing season -- arguably the best by any 20-year-old in the history of the game, with Trout's dominance at the plate challenged only by Triple Crown winner and eventual MVP Miguel Cabrera, and his superb value in the outfield and on the basepaths vaulting him past Cabrera in some pundits' eyes (mine included) in terms of overall value as a player. The "Millville Meteor" is the best player in the game and should remain in that conversation for years to come.
Which brings us to the root of Landis's public unhappiness: Mike Trout will only make $510,000 next year to play baseball for the Angels. The major league minimum is $490,000.
"During the process, on behalf of Mike, I asked only that the Angels compensate Mike fairly for his historic 2012 season, given his service time. In my opinion, this contract falls well short of a 'fair' contract and I have voiced this to the Angels throughout the process. Nonetheless, the renewal of Mike's contract will put an end [to] this discussion," said Landis in a statement over the weekend.
He's right about one thing: the renewal of Trout's contract will indeed end the discussion, what little of that there was. While a player is under team control, the clubs have all the leverage; the only real "discussion" to be had happens as a courtesy to the agent and the player. Trout, with 1 year 70 days of MLB service time, is looking at 2015 for his first arbitration year, with free agency three years after that. Until then, if Trout's agent and the Angels can't agree to a contract for the following season, the Angels are free to renew him at no less than 80% of the previous year's salary -- which is precisely what they are doing. Mike Trout's hardly alone here; 21 other players, including starting centerfielder Peter Bourjos and likely designated hitter/part time outfielder Mark Trumbo, had their contracts renewed in similar fashion. We have yet to hear from their agents how hard they're taking it.
Of course, neither Bourjos nor Trumbo was the best player in baseball last year, which means Craig Landis has an additional question for the Angels he no longer wishes to remain private: why is Bourjos starting in centerfield instead of Trout? In fairness, Landis was a bit more passive-aggressive about it in his statement: "Mike, himself, does not wish to comment on this matter. As when he learned he would not be the team's primary centerfielder for the upcoming season, Mike will put the disappointment behind him and focus on helping the Angels reach their goal of winning the 2013 World Series."
The reason is that Peter Bourjos is arguably the best defensive centerfielder in baseball. Until he proves he can't be a valuable player with his bat -- he was forced into limited action in 2012 due both to injuries and an outfield carousel including the now-departed Torii Hunter and Mark Trumbo, who will find a new home as DH -- Mike Trout will never be the full-time, everyday centerfielder. The Angels could trade Bourjos, certainly, but nothing the Angels could get for him in this trade environment (a decent relief arm? A lottery-ticket prospect a few years away from contributing at the major league level?) is worth what Bourjos can do for a win-now team immediately. An outfield with Trout, Bourjos, and new acquisition Josh Hamilton is an outfield where the worst defender among them -- Hamilton -- played serviceable centerfield last year, and all three could spot start there with regularity should injuries require it. That's a great place for the Angels to be in going into 2013, a year when, as Landis notes, the team is thinking World Series all the way. Unfortunately for Trout and Landis, their feelings don't outweigh the team's current needs.
It's not possible from this far outside Trout's inner circle to know the extent to which Landis cleared his comments with his client before making them, though it's safe to assume Trout knew they were coming because Landis hasn't been fired yet. If Trout's camp is feeling as slighted as Landis says they are, then the agent handled the situation perfectly for the only party that matters to him: Mike Trout, who is free to take the "high road" and give nothing quotes about just wanting to focus on the season. His message is sent without him having to personally get dirty.
That said, with the current contract jujitsu the Angels are dealing with right now -- Vernon Wells is still on payroll, incredibly enough -- it's unrealistic to expect the Angels to spend money they don't need to spend. If the team has to take on salary midseason to replace an injured everyday player or starting pitcher, suddenly the million dollars or so that Landis would have preferred the Angels show Trout becomes important. Arte Moreno is only going to dip into his own bankroll so often to help the Angels compete, and in all fairness, Wells' contract aside, a payroll around $150 million should be more than enough to win a championship anyway.
The Angels are also under no illusions that kicking an extra million dollars -- or two million, or 10 million -- Mike Trout's way is going to make him easier to extend as he approaches free agency. The Angels would certainly be wise to buy out Trout's arbitration years, and perhaps a year of free agency while they're at it, but since that hasn't happened yet, either they won't be able to afford it until the Vernon Wells debacle departs Orange County after the 2014 season, or more likely, they're still far apart on terms with Landis and Trout. That's entirely reasonable from the player's perspective, too: If Mike Trout continues to do what 20 year olds who hit like he did last year tend to do in Major League Baseball, his first free agency contract will be largest in history. He'll be in his mid-twenties and one of the best hitters in baseball. Trout's not a California boy -- the "Millville" part of his nickname is Millville, New Jersey -- and he owes the Angels as much of a hometown discount as any player owes any team in baseball. That is to say: none.
This isn't a Giancarlo Stanton situation. The Angels didn't just gut the team around Trout and leave him to rot through his early prime on a last place team in an empty stadium. They didn't give the other players on the team in Trout's service time situation performance-based raises while leaving him off the list; they just didn't give him special treatment. So Landis will be angry in front of reporters, Trout will keep a stiff upper lip, and Angels GM Jerry Dipoto will make official statements full of apologetic noises, repeat how much the organization values Trout's contributions … and next year? He'll probably do the same damn thing.
Mike Trout's payday is going to hit like a freight train and Jerry Dipoto can already hear it bearing down five stations out. It's moving too fast to stop and throwing a couple million at it now isn't even going throw on the brakes.