The Battle Of Los Angeles: On Josh Hamilton, Spending To Win, And Managing Contract Negotiations

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“”If they don’t receive you in a town, shake the dust off your feet and move to the next.”

Those were Josh Hamilton‘s words on October 6th, not long after the stunning late-season collapse of the Texas Rangers was capped off with a loss to the Baltimore Orioles in a one game, do-or-die playoff.

It saw the former face of the team in an unfamiliar spot. There he was – the player who captured the imagination of baseball fans everywhere with video game-like numbers just months ago, and who had carried the Rangers to the postseason – serenaded by boos from his home town fans.

It was Josh Hamilton, arguably the game’s most talented player, unable to shake a slump.

When the Rangers needed him most, he was simply unable to comply – whether it was the dropped ball against the Oakland Athletics in the division-deciding 162nd game of the season, or the 0-for-4 performance against the Orioles that saw Hamilton strike out swinging against Brian Matusz to end his night.

So the fans let him hear it, and Hamilton hinted at the possibility of moving on.

Today, he did just that.

That Hamilton signed his five-year, $125 million dollar deal with the Los Angeles Angels is as much about the perceived relationship he has with Rangers GM Jon Daniels as it was about the dollars and cents. You could also say it was about the fans, and the boos that he received over the final days of the season, but…let’s be realistic here – between all the ups and downs during his career, and the amount of times that he’s had to put himself at the forefront of the baseball world, baring his soul about the deep-rooted addiction problems that he’ll face for the rest of his life, it’s doubtful that his psyche as a professional ball player would be damaged by negative fan reaction. If there are coping mechanisms for this sort of thing, Hamilton knows how to employ them.

No, the implications of him signing with the Angels goes beyond the fans, and beyond the terms of the contract. That he would take his talents to a division rival – who no one thought would be in the mix for a high-priced outfielder, mind you – without giving Daniels and the Rangers a chance to match suggests that, well, maybe he simply didn’t think too much of how the team’s management decided to handle negotiations.

Was it the seven-year, $175 million dollar deal that he wanted? No, but he was never going to get that from the Rangers – or most likely anyone else, for that matter. At five years at $125, though, you’d have to think that the Rangers would have been in a position to match – especially if they were ready to throw that kind of money to Zack Greinke, only to lose out there too.

Instead, Daniels was simply told that Hamilton was gone.

Talk about an ugly break-up. Did Daniels undervalue Hamilton during the negotiations? Did Hamilton ask for too much? I suppose those questions are largely irrelevant now, but what transpired between the two is not so different from what Albert Pujols went through with the St. Louis Cardinals just a year earlier: Pujols was the sentimental favourite to re-sign with his home town, only to see the Angels get in the way between the two equally-jilted sides with a boatload of money.

A year later, Angels owner Arte Moreno and Jerry Dipoto saw the opportunity again, and in they went, wallet in hand. And again, Moreno and Dipoto was able to close a deal that seemingly came out of left field.

Sure, what they’ve come out with is now an uber-expensive lineup that features Vernon Wells as a $63 million bench player – but it’s a lineup that’s built to win, at least on paper. It didn’t happen for the Halos in 2012, but how can anyone deny a Mike Trout/Hamilton/Pujols heart of the order? Even if the whole thing winds up being an expensive experiment in how to put together a losing lineup of superstars, you can’t say Moreno didn’t want a winning team.

What you could say, though, is that you can’t “buy a championship”. On that, you’re probably right; after all, buying winning teams is the reason why the New York Yankees are so hated outside of New York, right? It’s often brash, unreasonable, and a tactic that leaves teams littered with bad deals; you could argue that it leaves a detrimental imbalance to the league. Most importantly, it hasn’t proven to be particularly successful over the last few years.

Still, that hasn’t stopped the Angels, or their Magic Johnson-led geographic counterparts Los Angeles Dodgers from trying; but what they’re buying isn’t necessarily a championship – it’s a chance to compete for one. We could argue the cost-benefit analysis of the Hamilton signing (I happen to think it’s reasonable), but it seems to be besides the point when it comes to this particular market. In the face of a new-found emphasis on prudence, even for teams like the Yankees, the LA teams are willing to spend – with reckless abandon – because their market can support it.

The landmark television deal that the Dodgers signed with Fox in November suggest so, and while billionaires didn’t get to be billionaires by throwing away their fortunes at pet projects like sports franchises, to the tunes hundreds of millions of dollars at a time, for the two LA teams, there’s a deep well of revenue that can be uncovered by relevance.

And while throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at players won’t necessarily buy you a World Series, it will more than likely buy you competitiveness. More importantly, it’ll certainly buy you relevance – and that in itself is a worthwhile investment.

So, is the Evil Empire now out in the west? Should we all direct our hatred towards the Dodgers and Angels for ruining the marketplace?

I find it difficult to do so, at least in the case of Hamilton. Mostly because what he wanted wasn’t entirely unreasonable – five years, $25 million per for a star outfielder who has been worth 25 WAR over his six-year career isn’t something that’s cringe-worthy. Sure, you’d rather have him for three years; but I mean, I’d rather have him for one plus an option too. Five years isn’t a term that will absolutely handcuff a team, and much less a team like the Angels.

It isn’t as though they went ahead and paid him for ten years, or even the admittedly unreasonable seven that Hamilton wanted. The Angels got better today, and even if they got three good (4+ WAR) seasons out of the deal, there’s a pretty good argument that it would have been worthwhile.

The Rangers, on the other hand, now have to move towards a plan B yet again. That said, they’re an incredibly talented group there, and it’s not like you could count them out. Still, would they have been a better team with Hamilton? I’d think so, and Daniels probably knew it too – it was only the back-and-forth on the cost that got in the way. Like Pujols, Hamilton was the sentimental hometown favourite to re-sign; and like Pujols, he’ll now don an Angels jersey, thanks to Moreno and Dipoto interrupting and expediting the process.

Would the Rangers have matched on five years? Does it really matter at this point? Hamilton clearly felt he was being undervalued by the Rangers, and that another team was willing to give him the halfway point between what he wanted and what would’ve been team-optimal, without a drawn-out process, was enough – no leveraging, no additional process, no phone call to Daniels to let him match.

Hamilton just shook the dust of his feet, and he moved on.

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