Last night, the richest franchise purchase in the history of North American professional sports went down as a Magic Johnson-helmed ownership group lobbed $2.15 billion in Frank McCourt's direction for the privilege of owning the Los Angeles Dodgers, and talk ignited almost instantaneously about how great that was for not just the game itself, but for its bevy of impending free agents.
MLB.com's Peter Gammons then did his part to fan the flames of speculation as far as the new-look Dodgers' plot to take over the game as we know it:
5 FA's lovin' the $2B Dodgers:Ethier, D. Wright, Cain, Hamels, Napoli.— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) March 28, 2012
FanGraphs, meanwhile, wrote about not only the ostensibly excessive buying price * (which ended up being 2.5 times greater than the $845 million purchase price of the Cubs, and nearly four times greater than the $575 million purchase price of the Rangers), but also the impressive collection of free agents that could end up being courted by Los Angeles, and both Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli figured into the mix as "likely targets." Adam has also written about the likelihood of Hamilton bolting for the more affluent pasture of Chavez Ravine after 2012, which makes even greater sense when you view that potential courtship with the knowledge that the Rangers seem to have been lukewarm for a couple of years now on the notion of locking Hamilton up to a long-term extension.
[* Interestingly, ESPN.com's Buster Olney notes that many "rival executives" view the new Dodgers' business model as unworkable, so you can all point back to that if the Dodgers' expected takeover of Major League Baseball and the entire world at large doesn't pan out.]
So, yeah, I guess that's your worst-case scenario from the Rangers' standpoint: Hamilton inks a monster contract that ends closer to the end of the decade than the middle of it, Napoli cashes in on his success with a deal that the Rangers are unwilling to replicate for a catcher on the wrong side of 30, and Texas loses anywhere from 8-10 wins between those two guys in a single off-season, with the implied consequence being an enormous opening for the Angels to re-emerge as the divisional superpower of choice. Are you panicking yet? If not, why not? This is clearly and unequivocally the end of the Rangers dynasty on the near horizon and Mark Holtz Lake should run red with the blood of the non-believers.
I'm writing in a bit of a tongue-in-cheek manner here, of course, but I can readily get why these free-agent eventualities might strike some fear (or concern, at the very least) into the heart of the Rangers fan base. I'm also not sure that this is the most appropriate time to speculate on the composition of the 2013 roster less than a fortnight before the 2012 regular season gets underway, nor am I sure that I can offer the most reassuring words to counteract the concern over the Dodgers crushing the Rangers, but here are the facts -- and half-facts -- of the matter:
● Josh Hamilton has one legitimate superstar-caliber season to his credit -- and perhaps a second, if you're amenable to blowing off his poor defensive numbers from that 2008 season -- in his four years in Texas. Mike Napoli turned in one of the great offensive seasons ever posted by a catcher last season, but averaged out as a roughly .240/.345/.485-hitting slugger before arriving in Texas, and has still never started more than 84 games behind the plate during a single regular + post-season run. He's also somebody who's nearing what we regard as the end of the typical player's offensive prime, and though last year's video game numbers may beckon towards a potential post-30 run of greatness, you have to wonder about what level of performance is realistically sustainable for Napoli going forward.
● Losing both Hamilton and Napoli in a single off-season -- thereby clearing both of their financial obligations off the books -- would free up a total of $24.65 million going into 2013. However, the process of accounting for (a) prearranged raises for Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Yu Darvish, Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus, and Derek Holland, and (b) arbitration-induced raises for Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz effectively nukes most, if not all, of those potential cost savings, forcing one to try and anticipate the extent to which the payroll will be expanded going into the 2012-13 off-season.
● The Dodgers are encumbered by what several prospect gurus regard as a bottom-half -- and arguably bottom-third -- farm system. The Rangers boast a consensus top-10 farm system, with top-five prestige being allocated to Texas by at least one industry publication.
I'm not going to blow off this issue with a dismissive wave of the hand and a remark that "oh, the Rangers' front office is brilliant, they'll figure something out," because that doesn't get us any closer to answering the questions at hand. Yes, the Rangers' brain trust is brimming with ingenuity and creativity and the smarts to overcome the departure of one -- and possibly two -- key, middle-of-the-order offensive pieces, and it's quite possible that they will invoke those same qualities in a successful defense of their divisional dominance, but even the best regimes make mistakes, and even the most calculating regimes have their master plans derailed by the constraints of finite capital.
I'd also be lying to you if I told you I had some idea of how this was going to play out, because there's an entire cavalcade of unknowns here. If I had to issue a hastily constructed guess, though, I would suggest that Hamilton will walk after another very good (but not elite) 2012 season to the tune of $110-plus million from the Dodgers, that Napoli will convert his own very good (but, again, not elite) 2012 season into a four-year deal with the Rangers in the $50-55 million range, and that Texas will compensate for any shortcomings that can't be addressed through free agency by tapping into their reserve of young talent and swinging a trade for a quality player. That seems like a reasonable enough series of educated guesses, at the very least.
And if Hamilton does end up walking to the tune of nine digits, there will be something worth keeping in mind ... losing a presently good player is not tantamount to making a poor personnel decision. I'll wish Hamilton well regardless of where he ends up, and I'll continue to hope that he can remain on the straight and narrow, but paying for past performance becomes an even riskier endeavor than usual where Hamilton is concerned, and there are a whole host of reasons why Hamilton -- good as he might be in 2012 -- could end being a lousy post-2012 investment for the money he's expected to command.