For Angels and Mike Trout, money could buy happiness, and risk

Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

TEMPE, Ariz. — Mike Trout could be the next to join baseball's growing fraternity of young stars who sign long-term contracts before they reach arbitration or free agency; the center fielder is in negotiations with the Angels on an extension that is likely to pay him well into nine figures.

Trout wouldn't be the first young Angels slugger to parlay a superb start into a handsome payday. Tim Salmon, the American League rookie of the year in 1993, signed a four-year, $7.5-million deal the following spring, with one hopeful eye toward the future and one wary eye on the past.

The dollar figures weren't in the same ballpark, but Salmon's decision 20 years ago was like Trout's today: Is the security of a long-term deal more important than the millions more you might earn through salary arbitration and the early years of free agency?

Salmon had a smashing debut season, hitting .283 with 31 homers and 95 runs batted in. He'd also had his jaw shattered and his face temporarily disfigured by a high-and-tight fastball in 1990 when he played for Class A Palm Springs.

"I was confident in my ability, but I had an appreciation for things like health and risk," said Salmon, who retired in 2006. "I was hit in the face by pitches twice in the minor leagues, so I know how quickly it can end. You can't walk away from that first guaranteed contract. At the time, that was the mind-set."

It still is, for the most part. The Atlanta Braves this winter secured five players, including shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who signed a seven-year, $58-million deal after one full year in the big leagues, and first baseman Freddie Freeman, who signed an eight-year, $135-million deal after three seasons.

Slugger Paul Goldschmidt had one year of service time when he signed a five-year, $32-million deal with Arizona last winter, joining a long list of players such as Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki, Brian McCann and Ryan Braun who signed their first huge deals well before arbitration.

Trout, 22, appears on the verge of signing the richest contract ever for a pre-arbitration player.

The deals seem like a win-win for players and teams. Players set themselves up financially for life at a time when their peers are making near the major league minimum, now $500,000. Contracts are guaranteed, so players get paid if they suffer major injuries.

Teams secure their best young players at discounted prices, they avoid the contentious arbitration process, and they show they are serious about winning.

"You're locking up a core player, a special player who is going to help you win games and World Series," Arizona General Manager Kevin Towers said. "He's going to wear the uniform for quite some time, and fans can get behind him, as opposed to knowing two or three years down the road he's going to test free agency."

But there are risks for players, who could lose millions in potential earnings, and teams, who could be stuck with bad contracts if players are injured or underperform.

"When you get great talents at values that are dramatically discounted due to early payment, it's normally very beneficial for the clubs, which is why they continue to do it," said agent Scott Boras, who prefers his clients test the market as free agents. "I've seen teams save $80 million to $100 million on these deals."

Boras points to Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, clients who turned down lucrative offers in their first two years of arbitration and went on to sign massive free-agent deals. Ellsbury went to the New York Yankees for seven years and $153 million; Choo to Texas for seven years and $130 million.

Boras said Ellsbury's initial offers from Boston were for $32 million and $50 million. Choo's offers from Cleveland were for $27 million and $42 million.

"I go over the probabilities of every factor that relates to their performance, the contract, the markets, their durability, risk factors, and then you let them make the decision," Boras said. "After receiving that information, my clients have usually been more patient than the players who have accepted these."

Longtime agent Paul Cohen goes through a similar process, but most of his clients, including Longoria, Tulowitzki, Tim Hudson and Nick Markakis, have jumped on such offers.

"Our view is you never turn down your first fortune, especially if you can keep your free-agent years intact at age 29 or 30," Cohen said. "Some guys will outperform their deals, some will underperform, some will get hurt.

"You have to be very careful when you're doing this to not be a cowboy or cavalier because you don't know when that 'oops' moment is going to happen."

One year after hitting .239 with 22 homers and 64 RBIs to win AL rookie-of-the-year honors in 2004, Bobby Crosby, a power-hitting shortstop and Cohen client, signed a five-year, $13-million deal with Oakland. A year later, he was tabbed a most-valuable-player candidate.