As a Rays fan, it frustrating knowing that so many of the Rays’ best young players are bound to become free agents and sign long-term deals elsewhere if they’re not traded before they get there. But at the same time, the Rays have proven time and again that even as the names change, their team philosophy remains the same and the results continue to come. Even when key players leave, the Rays stay calm and remain confident in their ability to evaluate and develop players to replace the departing players without significant drop-offs. It hurts when players like B.J. Upton and James Shields leave, but knowing that the Rays acquired Wil Myers and have plenty of talented pitchers remaining in the upper levels of their system makes Rays fans confident that the Rays will be absolutely fine next season and may even be better.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim panicked. They were afraid that their ability to contend in the AL West next season was in jeopardy. They didn’t think they were good enough. What did they do? They signed Josh Hamilton to a 5-year contract, worth 125 million dollars, taking him away from their division-rival Rangers and giving them a force in the middle of their lineup. However, while Hamilton has been one of the best players in baseball the last six years, managing a .304/.363/.549 line (135 OPS+) with 161 home runs, he’ll turn 32 years old in May and has been seen as a very streaky player and extremely injury prone, going on the 15-day DL and four out of his six big league seasons. Add in his history of drug addiction, even though that’s something he has worked very hard to overcome, and the Angels can’t be sure what Hamilton is going to give you over the next five years. But the felt like they had to make a move, and the signing of Hamilton certainly made a splash.
What’s the problem? The Angels didn’t need an outfielder- they needed a pitcher. While their outfield is going to be Mike Trout, Hamilton, and either Peter Bourjos or Mark Trumbo (with Trumbo possibly moving to third base), their pitching staff is not all that impressive. Jered Weaver is a true ace at the top, but C.J. Wilson is enigmatic, the recently-acquired Tommy Hanson has seen injuries lower the caliber of his stuff, Joe Blanton is a fourth starter at best, Jerome Williams hasn’t been good since 2005, and Garrett Richards has potential but his numbers haven’t been that impressive in the minors or majors the last two years. The Angels ranked third in the AL in OPS in 2012 and first in OPS+ accounting for their pitcher’s ballpark. On the pitching side, though, they ranked just 8th in the AL in ERA despite their pitcher-friendly stadium and were just 11th in ERA+ which adjusts for ballpark. Their glaring need was in the rotation, especially with Zack Greinke becoming a free agent, and they flat-out ignored it. It certainly isn’t a bad thing in the short-term that they signed Hamilton- he certainly improves their team and maybe they could possibly trade Trumbo or Bourjos for a starter.But in the long-term, they could very well be crippling themselves.
The Rays have done this process over and over again: they have a good starting pitcher who’s getting expensive and they hold onto him until they can receive peak value before placing him with a younger, cheaper, and most importantly qualified replacement. When they traded Scott Kazmir, they inserted Wade Davis into the rotation. When Matt Garza went to the Cubs, Jeremy Hellickson got an opportunity. And while it will be less clear-cut who will replace James Shields, they have a group of pitchers like Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi who could fill his rotation spot and pitchers like Matt Moore and Hellickson who could make up for his performance with continued maturation as pitchers. What did the Angels do by signing Hamilton? They had a quality situation in the outfield with three young players who had shown considerable promise in Trout, Trumbo, and Bourjos. They let Torii Hunter go to give them the opportunity to put that trio in the outfield. And now they’re about to sign an older player so they can potentially trade a younger one, most likely Bourjos. Whichever pitcher they’re going to get for Bourjos is going to be far from Greinke or even a pitcher like Anibal Sanchez who the Angels could have conceivably signed. Even if Hamilton is great for the next two or three years, he’s going to decline and still be using up valuable resources that could have been allocated to the pitching staff. Obviously thinking the Angels should run their team like the Rays do is completely flawed because of this enormous difference in payroll- but if the Angels were going to sign a free agent, why didn’t they target a player at a position of need instead of creating a surplus in the outfield when they didn’t have to? The difference between Hamilton and Bourjos factoring in hitting, defense, and baserunning is not nearly as large as the gap between a frontline starter or even a solid number three and the not-so-dynamic duo of Williams and Richards. You’re supposed to deal from a surplus, not deal to create a surplus.
People on sports radio stations have been marveling at how good the Angels’ lineup is combining Hamilton with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Trumbo. But before you anoint them the 2013 World Series Champions or even the favorites, take one look at their rotation and ask yourself whether they’re a better team than the 88-win team they were last year. If they are, it’s not by much. Josh Hamilton is an excellent player, but the Angels signing him just to make a splash and take him away from the Rangers will haunt them for years to come.