Last winter, the Mike Trout contract talks turned from smoke to fire in a matter of days, and at the end of it, the then-aged twenty-two year-old had netted himself one of the richest contracts in MLB history, paying him an Average Annual Value (AAV) of $33.25 million for the three free agent years that Los Angeles bought out.
It made all the sense in the world for the Angels to hand it over; Trout was coming off back-to-back seasons in which he had collectively hit .324/.416/.560 with a league-adjusted OPS+ of 174, meaning he was seventy-four percent better than a league-average player. His 20.6 Wins Above Replacement were unprecedented for a player his age, and considering hitters do not typically peak until their mid-to-late twenties, the risk was minimal that the Angels would be left holding the very expensive bag by the end of his contract; after all, Trout will be just twenty-nine years old by the end of his deal.
And now, reports are coming out that the Miami Marlins are looking to make good with their own young offensive phenom Giancarlo Stanton. Though he is, comparatively, not Mike Trout, he is still a supreme talent, who turns twenty-five in two months, and has been remarkably productive if somewhat injury-prone during his career.
The Marlins are talking as if they plan on setting franchise records with what they offer Stanton, and they would be fully justified in doing so. Players like Stanton come in handfuls every decade or so; the Bonds and Griffey caliber ones anyway. When Stanton is healthy, he is one of the five best offensive players in all of baseball, and given the economics of the game, it would be hard to spend more money for the value that he returns.
This is a continuation of the trend started with the likes of Evan Longoria, who signed a long-term deal with the Rays very early in his career. Clayton Kershaw signed on to a seven-year deal when he was twenty-five. Buster Posey is on Year Two of a nine-year deal he signed with the Giants prior to the 2013 season.
But none of the players whose teams were able to lock up long-term (save for Kershaw) had shown the kind of skills that Trout and Stanton display, and none of them hold the potential for sustained success or even growth over the course of the deals they are likely to sign.
The old trend was to purchase veteran free agents to supplement your young team, to add stability and production to what is invariably a volatile prospect; young, unproven players. Now, though, teams are opting to keep their best players long-term, paying well into free agency to ensure that they remain with the team for the foreseeable future. By contrast, it is making the high-dollar deals for older, more established players like Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Robinson Cano look much worse by comparison, considering their age and likelihood of decline.
This is the new market, and teams are starting to take notice. With all of the young talent that won't be making its way to free agency in the future, it becomes ever more necessary for teams to scout, draft, and develop internal talent, simply because of a lack of alternatives.