For Rangers, Josh Hamilton a bargain that was impossible to see coming
Earlier this week, a group of Rangers hitters—including Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder—walked shoulder-to-shoulder as they returned from a communal batting practice session in the visitors’ cage at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, cackling loudly at some inside joke. Laughing with them was their newest teammate, the biggest bargain in baseball. He was the one wearing a camouflage t-shirt that read, “ROCK BOTTOM OUTREACH,” with the ‘T’ in “OUTREACH” in the shape of a cross.
There are many angles from which to view the way Josh Hamilton’s career ended with the Angels and resumed with the Rangers. The human angle—involving the insensitive-at-best manner in which the Angels responded to the 34-year-old’s self-reported substance abuse relapse over the offseason, then reacted to the league’s subsequent decision not to suspend him—has been well explored, and rightfully so. Now that Hamilton is three games into his return with the Rangers, for whom he played five largely (and sometime extremely) productive seasons between 2008 and '12, it might be time to look at what has transpired from another angle: a strictly financial one. From that perspective, the Rangers appear to be the beneficiaries of a virtually unprecedented, and unexpected, windfall.
There is no question that the Angels were utterly fed up with Hamilton, to whom they gave a five-year, $125 million free-agent contract just 29 months ago, and that the organization was determined to do whatever it took to rid itself of him. Whether that was the morally right stance to take—to turn on a known substance abuse addict when he turned out to be a substance abuse addict—is one issue, and the fact that Hamilton performed well below Anaheim’s expectations (in 240 games over two years, he batted .255 with a combined 31 home runs and 123 RBIs) undoubtedly contributed to the decision. But that was the position of the Angels, led by owner Arte Moreno.
Once that was clear, all the leverage was Hamilton’s, due to the fact that he had three years and at least $80 million remaining on his contract as well as a full no-trade clause. When Hamilton said that he wanted to return to Texas and only Texas—where he felt comfortable and could re-establish his old support system (“If I could change the past, I would not have left,” he said at his introductory press conference)—the leverage belonged not just to Hamilton, but also to the Rangers.
The result was that the Angels had maneuvered themselves into a position in which they had little choice but to send Hamilton back to their AL West rivals, and at almost unbelievably favorable terms. Hamilton helped the deal along by reportedly allowing the Angels to keep some $12 million of his future salary, but that was only the difference in income taxes he would have paid in California versus Texas. The bottom line for him, financially, was the same. Ultimately, the Angels had to pick up the rest of the wages the will owe him over the next three years except for, reportedly, a total of about $6 million.
Think about that: the Rangers will have to pay Hamilton—the AL MVP in 2010 and the fifth-place finisher just three years ago, when he batted .285 with 43 homers and 128 RBIs—just $2 million a year over the next three years. From their perspective, he will be something like the 400th-highest-paid player in baseball. Even when he struggled with Anaheim, his production was worth far more than that. His average Wins Above Replacement during those two years was around 1.5, suggesting, at the current market rate, that even a terribly scuffling Hamilton was at least a $10 million a year player.
Of course, his potential to get injured, to distract or to relapse again impacts that value, but history suggests the Rangers are better equipped to tolerate and handle those possibilities than anyone else. “At the end of the day, this was a pretty easy decision for us,” said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels when explaining the transaction to reporters. “This is about a player we think can be productive and help us win games. A healthy Josh Hamilton in a good state of mind—where we believe he is—can help our offense and help us win baseball games. It was nothing more, nothing less, a pretty easy decision from a baseball standpoint.”
One rival executive, speaking anonymously, was blunter. “It’s incredible,” he said, enviously. “There’s no downside. There’s only upside, really.”
From a purely economic perspective, the Rangers couldn’t have designed their relationship with Hamilton over the past few years to have worked any more favorably for them. They declined to risk making a major financial commitment to a player they valued but of whose downside risk they were well aware, and then, two years later, they got him back—essentially for free, in baseball terms.
Texas also got him back at a time when the team could really use him. After a terrible, injury-marred 2014 and a similarly dispiriting first month of '15, the Rangers have shown signs of life in May. Their most important hitters—particularly Beltre and Shin-soo Choo—have rebounded from miserable starts to join AL batting leader and MVP candidate Fielder as offensive forces (Beltre is batting .308 in May, Choo .306). A recent seven-game winning streak brought them to .500 for the first time since the first week of the season, and the team is now 23–24, 4 1/2 games behind the Astros in the AL West. Texas' rotation, which is missing Yu Darvish and has a 4.42 ERA, remains a major concern, but it could be remade in a month or so when Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Martin Perez all might conceivably return from injury.
There is, in other words, a way forward for the Rangers this season, and Hamilton is an essentially risk-free and entirely unexpected part of it, albeit one who has gone 1-for-11 in the first three games of his return. If he can’t stay on the field, for whatever reason, the Rangers won’t have sacrificed very much at all, equivalent to the cost of a below-average middle reliever. If he plays only to his Angels standard, then he will still be better than what they had in left—a combination of Kyle Blanks, Ryan Rua, Delino DeShields, Carlos Peguero and Jake Smolinski that batted around .200. If he can approach even 50% of the production of his MVP days, then they’ve bought a Jackson Pollock at a yard sale.
It is very, very insensitive to suggest that the last two years of Hamilton’s life, in which he experienced significant personal and professional turmoil, could not have worked out any better for the Rangers. But here we are. The hope is that the next three won’t only prove beneficial to Texas, but to Hamilton, as well.