It's December 17th, just four days shy of what would have been Josh Hamilton's fifth anniversary as a Texas Ranger, and his nearly five-year-long swim through the organization has now fully transitioned from reality of the present to memory of the past. It's a transition that some of us saw coming more than a year ago and most of us saw coming months ago, a transition which we thought we had sufficiently braced ourselves for ... and, for the most part, we did. I'm not surprised that life after Josh Hamilton is beginning now for the Rangers as opposed to beginning 4-5 more years down the road.
Four days after his departure, however, I'm still rather surprised (and dismayed) at the fact that the next leg of his major league journey will find him strengthening the Rangers' No. 1 rival for a while, and I'm still unconvinced that the back end of his newly minted contract is going to hurt the Angels as much as we'd like to think it will. (I can't, however, say I'll miss him opening his mouth).
There's been a lot written over the last 72-plus hours about how the Angels overpaid to the hilt by escalating their pursuit of Hamilton to a $125 million level, and how Hamilton, flawed as he is personally and psychologically and physically and even on a pure baseball level, is an exceptionally cruddy bet to generate $125 million of value over the next five years. I take no issue with those assertions, and, if you're solely focused on that aspect of his departure, you probably think the Angels committed a colossal mistake. A month and a half ago, ESPN.com's Dan Szymborski forecasted Hamilton to churn out 15.5 wins above replacement over the next five seasons, translating to $87 million of fair market value over that span (given a four percent inflation rate). There's nothing unexpected about a top-flight free agent being "overpaid" relative to his long-term WAR forecast, but paying out a 40-45 percent premium for a player already loaded down with an excess of risk is a pretty unappetizing proposition.
The Rangers were smart to not get involved around that price point, and, frankly, even their speculated four-year, $108 million offer had the strong aroma of the winner's curse about it, such that whatever amount of enthusiasm you could muster over the Rangers being able to plug Hamilton back into the middle of their lineup would have been massively undercut by your sense of dread over the degree of overpayment. You could say the same thing about the impact of this deal upon the Angels, but there's a reasonable case to be made that their payroll ceiling -- and, consequently, their margin for error -- is significantly greater than that of the Rangers at this point in time, and that the Angels are therefore much better positioned than the Rangers to weather the looming albatross that is the back end of the Hamilton contract.
None of that, however, changes the fact that the Angels have meaningfully improved their 2013 (and perhaps 2014-15) ballclub(s) by landing Hamilton, or that the Rangers really haven't done much of anything thus far this winter ... and so in spite of the reality that the Angels signed Hamilton to a bad contract that would have represented a fiscally irresponsible roll of the dice for Texas, the local media has wasted no time in using the Rangers' "failure" to sign Hamilton as a platform for launching its most scathing missile strikes against the front office to date. Evan Grant:
And you thought the collapse over the last three weeks of the season was bad.
It pales in comparison to the worst off-season in the history of off-seasons, which took another dramatic turn for the worse Thursday afternoon.
[...] Did I miss something? Don’t the Rangers have three consecutive 90-win seasons? Haven’t they been to two of the last three World Series? Doesn’t money go farther in Texas than elsewhere? Isn’t Ron Washington an easy manager for whom to play?
The answer to all five is "yes."
So how come, all of a sudden, nobody wants to deal with the Rangers?
For this there are only theories. None of them are very complimentary. If it can be summed up in a word, that word would be hubris – extreme pride or arrogance. Committing hubris would entail Rangers management thinking it had the baseball world by the tail, would entail thinking it could “win” free agency and trade negotiations, that everything would fall into place and that players are simply assets or liabilities to be moved around like stocks and bonds.
The Rangers appear foolish, but worse yet, they also have come across as absolutely clueless, with some arrogance thrown in. Idiots? Yes, that, too.
[...] What happened? I don't know, but it appears some front-office egos got in the way. You do know, Jerry, what can happen when inner-office egos grab an organization by the throat. All these years later, everybody still talks about Jimmy and Jerry, and that ego thing. Don't they, Jerry?
But suddenly, Jon Daniels, the general manager who appeared to be in total control of the Rangers' winter moves, well, Jon got hit upside the head with a fungo. At the moment, Jon might as well be, well, you, Jerry.
The outcry among media types and fans alike from the Rangers' winter inactivity has been loud, swift, and forceful. Their 2012 season was swallowed up in its entirety by an extended period of uninspired, subpar baseball, ending in a catastrophic flameout that we all found wholly unacceptable, and if it's difficult to accept this sort of inaction from a great team coming off a deep playoff run (see: 2010-11 Rangers), it's damn near impossible to accept this in light of the way things ended three-plus months ago. People are pissed. People want more talent in here, they want it now rather than later, and when it doesn't materialize in an expeditious manner, they want to know why. I get it.
And, for what it's worth, I'm not thrilled myself with the way the off-season has unfolded. I feel that there have been opportunities which slipped away, and that there's a reasonable debate to be had over the Rangers' current player-valuing methods.
What I don't get, though, are the accusations of hubris and arrogance, the seemingly baseless speculation of outsized egos taking control of the Rangers' inner circle, and the talk of this being the worst off-season in the history of the franchise. I especially don't get the arrogance bit because, from my perspective, the Rangers' "failure" to land any of their reported off-season targets speaks more to their internal valuations/projections -- and perhaps their spending capacity -- being on the conservative side of things, and to them simply not offering as much money as the highest bidder, than a grossly inflated sense of front-office superiority and pride or free-agent disdain for the Rangers.
Late last month, Texas reportedly offered Russell Martin a two-year, $13 million deal. Pittsburgh sealed the deal with a two-year, $17 million contract.
Earlier this month, Texas reportedly maxed out on Mike Napoli at two years and something in the vicinity of $20 million. Boston sealed the deal with a three-year, $39 million offer, though the deal now appears to be in jeopardy due to emergent concerns over his health and the Red Sox are attempting to negotiate a shorter contract. Depending on the severity of Napoli's medical problems, two years and $20 million may not be as far off from his eventual contract as we originally thought it would be.
Earlier this month, Kansas City blew up the Rangers' pursuit of James Shields by throwing down a package consisting of Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard in exchange for Shields and Wade Davis. A comparable offer from the Rangers would have elicited much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I think, given that most of the wistfulness from the Rangers' fan base over that deal was oriented towards us dreaming on that sort of return for Derek Holland or Matt Harrison.
Earlier this month, Texas made a significant play on Zack Greinke, but reportedly balked at the Greinke camp's demands for an out clause after three years that would have shifted the needle further to the left on the risk-reward continuum, and was ultimately bested by the Dodgers' six-year, $147 million offer, which included Greinke's demanded out clause.
Then there was the Justin Upton thing, which effectively boiled down to the Rangers trying -- and, to this point, failing -- to make a deal work without kicking either Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar into the pot. R.A. Dickey isn't happening, because the Blue Jays are, in effect, blowing the Mets away with their reported offer fronted by top catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud. And, of course, there's the Hamilton thing, which we already covered in exhaustive detail above, and which I could not get behind in good conscience even if I was armed with foreknowledge that Hamilton would sign with the Angels if he didn't sign with the Rangers.
Perhaps my usual sense of cynicism is absent this morning, but I don't see the evidence to support the notion that the Rangers have whiffed on these names because they're too consumed by their own arrogance or overconfidence in their abilities, or because free agents don't want to play for the Rangers. I think the Rangers whiffed on these names because they didn't offer the most money/most appealing contract terms (Martin/Napoli/Hamilton/Greinke), or because they didn't make the best trade offer (Shields/Dickey), and because they valued Andrus/Profar to such a great degree that they couldn't bring themselves to break the stalemate with Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks on Upton.
The next question, of course, is whether they have erred in their approach on any of these counts, and that's a more complicated issue. The Rangers' internal player valuations may be perfectly supportable and reasonable and capable of withstanding scrutiny from skeptical outsiders, but in light of everything we know up to this point, their valuations (and corresponding offers) simply haven't been hefty enough to lock down any deals, and that leads you to wonder if their careful, calculated approach is simply lagging behind an off-season market where inflation just feels like it is running rampant and overpayment in terms of dollars/prospects is turning into the new market norm.
Put another way, we can question whether they're adapting to a fast-changing market as quickly as they should be, and wonder if they're overvaluing their in-house talent and/or undervaluing outside talent in a way that's incongruent with how the market has actually developed Perhaps none of the above is true and the Rangers harbor zero regret about the way things have played out, but in light of everything we know up to this point, these seem like reasonable points for us to contemplate.
The other thing that's been gnawing away at me for a week or two now is the growing likelihood that the 2013 Rangers won't be as good as they could have been if they had played things faster and looser and more aggressively earlier in this winter, which heightens the probability of a scenario where they miss the post-season and years of club control of their best players -- a year of Yu Darvish at his best, of Adrian Beltre at his best, of Elvis Andrus at his best -- vanish into the ether without them even gaining bottom-seed dmission to baseball's post-season crapshoot.
The easy and perfectly logical counterargument is that the Rangers should be playing things so that they have a self-sustaining, long-term contender that has a good chance of reaching the post-season every year (thereby buying the maximium number of shots at the World Series) ... but, on a more visceral level, I'm still consumed by regret that the Rangers couldn't win the big one with Mike Napoli or Michael Young or Josh Hamilton, and I really can't stand the thought of the same happening with Andrus and Beltre and Darvish and friends.
Texas is in a tricky position right now, armed with some money to spend and attractive young talent but a shrinking pool of options and a roster that, as it stands right now, arguably lags behind the Angels in terms of projected 2013 wins. There are certain in-house possibilities for their squad that make some sense (e.g. pulling out of the starting pitching market and reserving their trade ammo until the mid-season trade market materializes), some that make less sense (e.g. Ian Kinsler at first base, though I guess there's a case to be made that it could work), and some that make almost no sense (e.g. Geovany Soto and Eli Whiteside as the Opening Day catching tandem), but the problem is that none of those possibilities strike us as especially appealing, and it's hard to feel overly jazzed or confident about the roster in its present form, or even feel certain in a big move being close on the horizon.
And, with that being the case, we continue to wait. We wait for that one big move which re-energizes the fan base, we wait for the winter of our discontent to subside, and we wait for that feeling of unbridled anticipation for baseball season to return to our hearts.