What if Willie Mays were a free agent?

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
3:10
PM ET
We talked a lot about Mike Trout in Tuesday's chat session. Following up on that, a couple Trout links to check out.

Buster Olney writes today:
If Trout were a free agent right now and told teams he would only sign a one-year deal, what would he get?

The responses to this purely hypothetical question, from club officials around MLB, invariably began with laughter Tuesday afternoon -- not at the mode of examination, but because the numbers would be so ridiculously enormous.

"I'd think the bidding would begin at $35 million," said one evaluator, "and wind up somewhere in the range of $45 million to $50 million."

Said a second evaluator: "If he was on the open market and the Dodgers had a chance to get him -- and pull him away from the Angels -- he'd get $50 million."


Meanwhile, the crew at Baseball Prospectus dreams up trade scenarios for Trout. I wrote in my chat that Trout is basically untradeable, four years from free agency. If you view him, somewhat conservatively, as a 9-WAR player, that's 36 WAR of value you're trading away. You have to luck into an enormously talented group of prospects to earn that back if you trade for young guys; but if you trade for veteran players, you're picking up too much salary (which the Angels, already hammered with the Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols contracts, wouldn't want to do).

Here's the first trade the BP folks came up with:

1. The Orioles Deal Manny Machado and Kevin Gausman
There aren't too many organizations in baseball who can boast a pre-arb one-two punch strong enough to offer a duo for Trout and not get laughed out of the room. For the Orioles, the duo of Manny Machado and Kevin Gausman is plenty powerful to accomplish that goal (of not getting laughed out of the room, that is).


I love Manny Machado like my old Dave Concepcion glove from Little League, but I wouldn't do that trade if I'm the Angels. Trout is better than Machado and Gausman is still too much of an unproven commodity to guarantee making up the difference.

There are a couple more serious suggestions before the article quickly deteriorates to comedy. That's how good Trout is: He's so good you can't even come up with enough plausible trade scenarios.

The other thing I mentioned in the chat was that I'd write something on thebkind of contracts all-time great players would receive as free agents in 2014 if we could transport them from the past. In other words, if Willie Mays had the same value as when he played and reached free agency after his first six full seasons, what kind of contract could he expect?

The first step is evaluating what the current market is for free agents. The Mariners gave Robinson Cano $240 million over 10 years. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system projects Cano being worth 35.3 WAR over the life of that contract, or $6.8 million per win. The Yankees gave Jacoby Ellsbury $153 million for seven years. His projected ZiPS WAR of 22.0 gives a value of $6.96 million per win.

Those numbers may seem high, but that's the going rate for an elite player, especially when you consider that the cost per win may continue to increase in the future. For the purpose of this study, we're actually going to use a slightly lower figure of $6.5 million per win.

Anyway, over the past two seasons, Cano was worth 16.1 WAR. Trout has been worth 20.1 WAR. Keep those figures in mind.

Willie Mays: Free agent after 1958 (entering age-28 season)
We're not giving credit to Mays for missing the 1953 season while in military service, so he reaches free agency after hitting .347/.419/.583 with 29 home runs and a league-leading 31 steals in 1958. The home run total was actually a low mark for him: Over the previous five seasons he'd averaged .328 and 38 home runs. His two-year WAR total was 18.5 and he'd played 150 games each season (in a 154-game schedule).

So you're talking about a Gold-Glove, power-hitting center fielder who had led the NL in steals three years in a row reaching free agency at 28. So he's three years younger than Cano and a better hitter, faster, better defensively and just as durable. We could project his 10-year WAR totals at something like this: 9.5, 9.0, 8.5, 8.0, 7.5, 6.5, 5.5, 4.5, 4.0, 3.0. That's 66 WAR. At $6.5 million per win, that's a $429 million contract.

Too much money? According to Baseball-Reference.com, Mays was actually worth 88.8 WAR from ages 28 to 37, including an amazing run from ages 31 to 34 where he topped 10 WAR each season.

Mickey Mantle: Free agent after 1957 (entering age-26 season)
Mantle was called up during the 1951 season, so he hits free agency after his seventh season in the majors. What he had done: Well, in 1956, he hit .353 with 52 home runs and won the Triple Crown. In 1957, he hit .365 with 34 home runs and a .512 OBP. His WAR over those two seasons was 22.6. At that point in his career, he also looked pretty durable, averaging 147 games per season the previous four years.

Imagine a guy with a .512 on-base percentage hitting free agency in the prime of his career, a switch-hitter with enormous power who played a premium defensive position? Magic Johnson may sign over his entire movie theater chain to sign him.

What could we project for Mantle? He was more valuable at the plate than Mays due to his ability to draw walks -- a skill that ages well. He wasn't the defensive player that Mays was, however, so maybe you would project that he'd move to right field at some point during the contract, lowering his value a bit. Let's say something like 11.0, 11.0, 10.5, 9.5, 8.5, 8.0, 7.0, 6.0, 5.5, 4.5. That's 81.5 WAR from ages 26 to 35. At our $6.5 million per win estimate, that's a $530 million contract.

Frankly, it's going to be hard to top Mantle since he was at his absolute peak when he would have hit his fictional free agency. As it turns out, he earned 55.5 WAR over those 10 years.

Babe Ruth: Free agent after 1920 (entering age-26 season)
Ruth is a little harder to calculate since 1920 was his first full season as a hitter and his first year with the Yankees. But what a year: .376/.532/.847, 54 home runs, worth 11.9 WAR. This would probably put him somewhere between Mays and Mantle in projected value.

Ruth, of course, remained the best hitter in the game well into his 30s. He earned 100.7 WAR over our 10-year span. In other words, fictional free agent Ruth would have been worth a $650 million contract in today's dollars.

Ty Cobb: Free agent after 1911 (entering age-25 season)
Cobb has the advantage of being a year younger than Mantle or Ruth. In 1911, he hit .420 and led the American League in batting average, slugging percentage, doubles, triples, runs, hits, stolen bases and RBIs. Value: 10.7 WAR. Considering his age and speed, this places him in the $450 million range. In real life, he was worth 73.1 WAR from 25 to 34, his 1917 season being the only one valued higher than his 1911 campaign.

OK, OK ... comparing Trout to four of the greatest players of all time isn't all that fair. Well, it is, but maybe that places unrealistic expectations on a player.

Two more recent players.

Ken Griffey Jr.: Free agent after 1994 (entering age-25 season)
Since Griffey reached the majors at 19, he would have been a young free agent. 1994 was the strike season and he'd hit .323 with 40 home runs in 111 games, which projects to 58 over 160 games. In 1993, he'd hit .309 with 45 home runs. He didn't get on base like Mantle or play center quite like Mays, so his WAR totals were 8.8 in '93 and a pro-rated 9.9 in '94.

We could project something like: 10.0 (he looked like he was still getting better), 10.0, 10.0, 9.5, 9.0, 8.5, 7.5, 7.0, 6.5, 5.5. Total WAR: 83.5. Estimated contract: $543 million. Oops, I just valued him higher than Mantle (in part because you would easily project Griffey to remain in center field at that point in his career).

Griffey got hurt in '95 but was great in 1996 and 1997 (his MVP season). He hit 56 home runs in 1998, but his average dropped under .300. He started putting on weight. He was traded to the Reds in 2000. He got hurt. The Reds were afraid to move him out of center. He was worth 9.6 and 9.1 WAR in '96 and '97, but just 42.2 cumulative from 25 to 34. (Griffey never did test free agency in his prime, although he did sign a $116.5 million extension after getting traded to the Reds.)

Alex Rodriguez: Free agent after 2000 (entering age-25 season)
SportsNation

Mike Trout would be a free agent after the 2017. He'll be 26. What kind of contract do you think he would get?

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    12%
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    30%
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    29%
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    20%
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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,186)

Of course, A-Rod actually was a free agent after posting 10.3 WAR in 2000 (4.8 in 1999). He received his record-breaking $252 million contract, which he later opted out of to sign the ridiculous extension the Yankees are now trapped under. From 2001 to 2010 he earned 71.6 WAR. By Baseball-Reference's evaluation, 2000 was his best season. Never should have left Seattle, Alex.

You can do this for other players easily enough -- maybe you think Trout is worth more than Rickey Henderson or Reggie Jackson or even Cesar Cedeno or Vada Pinson. Maybe you don't think Trout should be compared to Mays and Griffey. But the truth is he's every bit the player they were. Actually, at his age, he's better.

That possible $400 million contract that Buster wrote about Monday isn't outlandish at all. The question may actually be: When Trout becomes a free agent, will $500 million be out of the question?

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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