COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — The 2016 Baltimore Orioles caught lightning in a bottle when they traded for Mark Trumbo in the 2015-2016 offseason. Trumbo, who settled with the team on a one-year, $9.15 million deal to avoid arbitration, turned in the best season of his career.
The big right-hander hit .256 with a league-leading 47 home runs, the highest-total of his seven-year career, and was named to his second All-Star team.
Now, after rejecting Baltimore’s qualifying offer of $17.2 million, Trumbo is on the free-agent market, likely looking for a multi-year deal worth more than $15-million-per-year.
Is Trumbo really worth all that money?
Spotrac, a website that has become the largest online sports team and player contract resource, currently values Trumbo at $19.58 million per year. That number is derived by comparing Trumbo to similar players on variables like age, contract status and game statistics. Trumbo, according to Spotrac, is worth a five-year, $97.9 million deal.
It’s worth noting that the players Spotrac compared with Trumbo are OF Jayson Werth, 1B Chris Davis, OF Justin Upton and OF Matt Kemp. Those four players have all signed an average contract of seven years for $144.94 million, at an average age of 28.8, a little more than a year younger than Trumbo is right now.
All four of those players, save the Orioles’ Davis, have seen a decline in WAR (wins above replacement) since signing those contracts. Kemp, who signed an eight-year, $160 million deal after posting a season with career-high 8.2 war, has since become a league-average player. Werth, who had a career 20.2 WAR in his first eight seasons, posted a total WAR of 9.6 in the six seasons since signing a seven-year, $126-million deal with the Nationals.
The jury is still out on Upton, who signed a six-year, $132.75 million deal prior to the 2016 season, when he posted a 2.0 WAR. That figure, however, is his lowest since 2010, when he had a 1.5 WAR. Davis, who signed a seven-year, $161-million deal prior to the 2016 season, hit 38 home runs and logged a 3.0 WAR.
Let’s compare Trumbo’s 2016 season with other similar seasons in order to determine how much he might actually fetch on the open market. As is turns out, there’s only one other player in baseball history who had a season like Trumbo did this year: 47 home runs (or more), a .256 batting average (or higher), a 1.6 WAR (or greater) and 170 strikeouts (or more). Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, batted .251 with 48 home runs and 199 strikeouts—tallying a 1.8 WAR—in 2008.
That season, Howard led the league in both home runs and RBIs (146), finishing second in the National League MVP race and leading the Phillies to their first World Series since 1980.
Not only are Trumbo’s 2016 season and Howard’s 2008 season statistically close in traditional statistics like batting average and home runs, but also in sabermetric statistics, such WAR, Weighted On-Base Percentage (wOBA) and Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+).
The charts below show just how similar Trumbo and Howard’s seasons actually were. They even had nearly the same number of at-bats (Trumbo had 613, Howard with 610) and total bases (Trumbo – 327, Howard – 330).
In the offseason that followed the 2008 season, Howard signed a three-year, $54-million contract extension after making $10-million the previous season, a figure similar to Trumbo’s $9.15 million in 2016.
Of course, there were other factors that led to Howard’s contract extension. For one thing, his 2008 season saw him finish second in NL-MVP voting, not to mention his contributions to helping the Phillies win the World Series.
Additionally, only four players have ever had more than 175 home runs over their first five seasons. One of them is Howard (177). The other three are Ralph Kiner (215), Albert Pujols (201) and Eddie Mathews (190). Kiner and Mathews are Hall-of-Famers and Pujols will likely be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer when he becomes eligible.
Here’s a look at how Howard’s and Trumbo’s single-season home run totals compare.
Howard hit 48 home runs in 2008 and hasn’t hit that many in a single-season since. Trumbo’s career-high of 47 came in 2016, when he was two years older than Howard was in 2008. So, Trumbo’s next contract, assuming it’s similar to Howard’s in 2008, will carry him through age 33, which is when Howard had his career-low in home runs (11), albeit in fewer games (80).
Neither Howard nor Trumbo have ever been known for defense. But in 2008, Howard was serviceable as a first basemen, posting an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of -0.2, meaning he was just barely worse than the average first baseman on plays that occur within a first basemen’s “zone.” Trumbo, meanwhile, played 95 games in right field for Baltimore and tallied a UZR of -5.9, which ranked 22nd out of 25 players that played at least 700 innings at the position. (Trumbo’s overall UZR was -7.7, which included his time spent in left field and at first base.)
Trumbo’s upside is at the plate, and he more than likely profiles as a designated hitter for a team next season (he served as Baltimore’s DH for 59 games this season).
So, is Trumbo worth as much as Howard was? Probably not.
Trumbo’s upside at the plate is less certain than Howard’s was after the 2008 season. And coupled with poor fielding, more advanced age, and—in truth—less of an emotional attachment to a specific franchise or city, Trumbo isn’t worth what Howard was in 2008.
With the Orioles having spent large sums over the past few seasons—a six-year, $85.5-million extension for OF Adam Jones, and Davis’ deal, for example—Trumbo’s potential price is too high.
Baltimore would be better off finding a cheaper replacement for Trumbo’s home run production and well-below average defense and save money for 2018, when franchise cornerstone Manny Machado becomes a free agent.
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