Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hamilton to Hollywood

Hamilton is happy to be an Angel
Last December the Los Angeles Angels dominated the Hot Stove headlines by committing more than $300 million to Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. Over the summer they landed Zack Greinke, the most prized trade deadline target, to form a super-rotation with Wilson, Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, and Ervin Santana.

But for all their wheeling and dealing, the Halos finished third in a four-team division. The Los Angeles Dodgers missed the playoffs, too, despite bringing in Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Joe Blanton and Carl Crawford to fortify a roster that already boasted the league's top position player (Matt Kemp) and pitcher (Clayton Kershaw).

The Dodgers added more star power by shelling out $147.5 million for Greinke, the best pitcher on the market. The Angels countered by stealing Josh Hamilton, the best available hitter, from their division rivals with a five-year, $125 million deal. Hamilton provides a lefthanded power bat his new team sorely needed. He joins a lineup that has baseball's version of the Big Three, featuring the best all-around player in the game, the best hitter of his generation and the sport's most exciting, dynamic talent. It would be like pairing Ted Williams with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

But don't go handing them the AL West title just yet. Pujols will be 33 next year and his OPS has declined each season since 2008, falling from a superlative 1.114 to a merely good .859 in his Califorinia debut. Trout can't possibly get any better and will likely regress in 2013. Hamilton is the biggest wild card of all, an every-other year player on the wrong side of 30 who also seems like a good bet to regress after moving away from a hitter's haven in Texas to a pitcher's paradise in Anaheim. The former MVP and batting champ is also likely to miss a good chunk of time; he's topped 150 games played just once throughout his career and isn't getting any younger.

No one knows what to make of Hamilton after his rollercoaster 2012 campaign that highlighted the mountainous peaks and cavernous valleys that have defined his six major league seasons. After a magical first two months to the season highlighted by a historic night in Baltimore that saw him blast four home runs, the MVP frontrunner fell into a prolonged slump and everyone soured on him. Nolan Ryan called him out. Rangers fans booed him. He was criticized for giving away at-bats with his hyper-aggressive batting approach, lack of plate discipline, and Vladimir Guerrero-esque tendency to hack at any pitch in the general vicinity of the strike zone.

The numbers speak for themselves. From June 1st until the end of the season, the enigmatic outfielder batted an uninspiring .245 with 123 strikeouts. The five-time All-Star also seemed to let his struggles at the dish follow him out onto the field, where his typically solid defense deteriorated sharply during the second half of the season.

But even with his summer slide, Hamilton still finished his contract year with gaudy power numbers. His 43 home runs, 128 RBI, and .577 SLG all ranked second in the Junior Circuit, surpassed only by Triple Crown winner and league MVP Miguel Cabrera, while his HR/AB ratio was bested only by Edwin Encarnacion. Hamilton also placed top five in OPS, runs, intentional walks, total bases, and extra base hits. Not too shabby.

I doubt he'll compile similar statistics next year, though, or possibly ever again given his combination of age, injury history, personal baggage and move to a pitcher-friendly environment. I project him to replicate Pujols' .285-30-105 production from last year, but can't see Hamilton repeating his past performances. His numbers were inflated by the Ballpark in Arlington, where he owns a .315./373/.592 batting line, as well as his great supporting cast of Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Michael Young, Elvis Andrus, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Napoli that made Texas a run-scoring machine.

Hamilton is still a great hitter and tremendous talent regardless of where he plays, but I'm willing to bet we've already seen the best of him. He inked the same contract as Ryan Howard at the same age--32--and after the first year of Howard's deal it's already looking like a massive mistake. Same goes for Pujols. And I don't have to tell you about Alex Rodriguez, the only player with a larger annual salary than Hamilton.

The deal he got was fair, but I doubt he'll be worth the money. Then again, few players with nine-figure contracts (Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells and Barry Zito come to mind) are.

Merry Christmas!

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