Every year, smarter writers than I come up with a "trade value ranking," in which players are ranked based on a combination of talent, production and salary. The lower the salary, the higher the ranking. Hank Aaron in his prime making $100,000 would be more valuable to a team than Hank Aaron in his prime making $25 million.
For several years now, these writers could relax once they got to the top spot. They worked hard to get there, now take a breather. Type in "Mike Trout" with your toes while making a martini with your free hands. Here's Jonah Keri's list from March:
Four years of this column, four years with Trout on top.
And in Dave Cameron's recap of his last trade ranking, he wrote what we were all thinking:
... I look forward to doing this again next year. Who knows, maybe by then someone will challenge Mike Trout for the top spot. Okay, probably not, but hey, the fight for #2 will be interesting!
It was Mike Trout years ago, it was Mike Trout before the season and it was going to be Mike Trout forever. He's the most amazing specimen of pure baseball since a teenage Alex Rodriguez, at least.
It's time, though. I waited and waited and waited until the heat on this opinion came down to room temperature. Carlos Correa is the most valuable player in baseball.
First, we'll belabor the point about what valuable means. This doesn't mean that Correa would win if he challenged Trout to an illegal unsanctioned WAR-off down by the docks. This isn't about who will help his team win a typical regular-season game more. It has a ton to do with salary. And that's kind of icky.
It's just odd to celebrate a player because the system is rigged against him. No other professional sport makes its young stars wait so long to get paid their market value. Baseball shares far less revenue among its teams than other sports, but small-market teams can still compete because players like Correa subsidize them. And we're supposed to give the player credit for that? We're supposed to fold that into an omnibus ranking and hand out gold stars and blue ribbons? Please note that "Congratulations for being outstanding and underpaid in a system rigged against young players!" doesn't fit on a regular-sized cake.
But, yeah, that's about right. Mike Trout makes a little over $16 million this year. He'll earn over $138 million over the next five seasons. He's probably still underpaid, considering he's already one of the greatest baseball players ever, but what's a few million among friends? Yet here's a brain teaser that probably won't keep you up at night. For the next five years, would you rather have ...
- Mike Trout
- Carlos Correa and Justin Upton
You're thinking about it, at least. Or if Upton doesn't float your whistle or wet your boat, sub him out for Jordan Zimmermann. Or maybe you'd prefer to have Correa, Ben Zobrist and Yoenis Cespedes. Or Correa, with Dexter Fowler, Howie Kendrick and an extra $80 million to help lock up a young superstar in the future. With Trout, you get one of the greatest players of his, or any other, generation. With Correa you get a young star with that potential, but you also get scores of millions to help make your team better, too.
Correa won't make much more than the major league minimum until he's arbitration-eligible after the 2018 season. He's under team control for a season longer than Trout. I was hoping to stretch this out and make a much longer argument, but that's about all you need to write. Trout will make star money soon. Correa will not. The two aren't that far apart in expected value, so the decision is obvious.
Ah, that's the twist. No one should be close to Trout in expected value. It's possible to be a perennial MVP candidate on a Hall of Fame path -- say, Andrew McCutchen -- and not come all that close to Trout's peak. So why should we assume that Correa is even close based on a half-season of excellence? Here's the wins above replacement leaderboard for players through their age-23 season:
- Mike Trout, 38 WAR
- Ty Cobb, 36
- Ted Williams, 34
- Mel Ott, 31
- Ken Griffey Jr. 30
- Mickey Mantle, 30
- Alex Rodriguez, 28
- Al Kaline, 28
- Arky Vaughan, 27
- Rogers Hornsby, 27
By this park- and era-adjusted metric, Trout was better than every inner-circle Hall of Famer below him. No player has been so consistent with the nine-win seasons since Barry Bonds, except Trout was building that portfolio at the same age Bonds was playing in Hawaii with Bud Bundy and Burk Goldthorn. In order to take an under-priced Correa over a $30 million Trout, you have to believe that Correa will come close to that kind of production.
I'm a believer. Which is absurd, because this kind of player shouldn't come along so soon after the last one, but Correa also has the mix of nonsensical talent at a preternaturally young age. Consider the list of players to hit 20 homers or more before they turned 21:
- Mel Ott
- Ted Williams
- Alex Rodriguez
- Al Kaline
- Mike Trout
- Frank Robinson
- Mickey Mantle
- Tony Conigliaro
- Vada Pinson
- Carlos Correa
- Orlando Cepeda
- Bryce Harper
- Bob Horner
- Ken Griffey Jr.
- Giancarlo Stanton
- Willie Mays
- Eddie Mathews
Whittle that down to middle infielders.
- Alex Rodriguez
- Carlos Correa
Whittle that down to players you might consider sharing a studio apartment with.
- Carlos Correa
If you think that's unfair, that Rodriguez's possible involvement with PEDs from an early age and general quirks shouldn't be held against him, it's still tremendous, brilliant company for Correa to be in. Just say it to yourself: The only other 20-year-old shortstop to do what Correa did last year was Alex Rodriguez.
Correa is off to a hot start this year, but this isn't just a wild romp through the sample-size meadows. He's already one of the hitters opposing pitchers have given up trying to figure out, one of the more terrifying at-bats in baseball. He's, by all accounts, a player who is wise and composed beyond his years, not unlike Trout. He plays a mean shortstop and should for several years.
And, yes, ugh, the salary counts more than it should. The Astros won't pay him nearly as much as Trout during that time, which means they can keep Dallas Keuchel, or do things like make qualifying offers to Colby Rasmus, or break the free agent market when they feel the time is appropriate. That part is why it's only mildly controversial to prefer Correa in a fake-GM sense.
The next greatest argument is if you would take Correa in a hypothetical team-building draft if salaries and contracts weren't an issue. Trout still holds that crown for now, with Bryce Harper possibly nudging him aside with another MVP year. But Correa is already in that discussion, after being in the league less than a year. It's apparently a Golden Age of young superstars. Practice telling your kids just how much better it was back in our day.
Until then, note that Carlos Correa is the most valuable player in baseball. Mike Trout had a good run, but it's time to take the crown away from him, mostly because he can afford to buy a larger, more impressive crown with the Angels' money.