Friday, December 14, 2012

How the West Was Won?

Out of seemingly nowhere yesterday, the Angels swooped in and signed Josh Hamilton for five years an $125 million, robbing one of their principal division rivals in the process.  This signing raises all kinds of interesting points from a number of angles, which we will take a look at.  There are questions of intrigue, of fit, of how this affects the trade market, and of course, how this signing affects the landscape in a division with three really good teams.  There is perhaps no player in baseball as scrutinized as Hamilton (for a variety of reasons), and this is going to be the most talked-about move of the off-season.

Let's dispense with the minor first.  One thing this signing does is tell the world that the Angels pushed Torii Hunter (one of the most respected players in the game) out the door.  According to Hunter, Angels owner Arte Moreno told him "money was tight," then turned around and spent much more money on Hamilton than it would have cost to keep Hunter.  Sure, Hunter is aging and in some decline, but there's no reason to burn that bridge, and it's not like Hamilton doesn't come with significant risk of decline himself, especially given how he abused his body for all those years.  Note also that Hamilton had purportedly told the Rangers that they could match any offer; that they opted not to do so tells you exactly how risky they feel his contract is, given that they know him better than any other franchise by a long, long way.

Sports fans love to project the future, and to speculate on "what if Player X and Player Y played awesome would that be?"  And sometimes it works out.  Just as often, I suppose, it doesn't (after all, that's why they play the games).  I feel like it doesn't work out more often in football or basketball, which are actual team sports (as opposed to baseball, which is made up of various individual matchups) and thus require maybe more ego sublimation for the greater good.  The Philadelphia Eagles tried to put together a defense of epic proportions over the past year and a half; yet Andy Reid will almost certainly follow his fired defensive coordinator out the door by January.  The Lakers, with what could almost be a starting lineup for the 2008-2009 All-Star team, have looked awful under two different coaches so far this season.  Hell, it took LeBron and the Heat an extra year in the wilderness before they were able to put it together and win a championship.  I suppose the most recent example in baseball is the Phillies, who staffed their rotation prior to 2011 with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, and Joe Blanton.  They made the playoffs in year one, but this year Oswalt decomposed, Blanton was traded, Halladay got hurt for the first time ever, and Lee couldn't get a shred of run support.  That's just the way these things work sometimes.

John Hart, the former GM of the Cleveland Indians, once said that the best way to win a championship was to make the playoffs as often as possible, which makes particular sense in baseball, where the short series of the playoffs are so starkly different from the long, almost interminable grind of the regular season.  Still, teams will frequently make a move to "win now" and push all their chips into the middle of the table for one season. It seems that, with one or two more attendant moves, that will be exactly what the Angels have done for the 2013 season.

There are a couple of extremes that the Angels could fall into.  Mike Trout, who just had the third-best season by an American League position player over the past half-century (trailing only Cal Ripken in 1991 and Yaz in 1967), could be like Dwight Gooden and never produce at that stratospheric level again in his career.  Albert Pujols' early-season struggles over the past couple of years could be a harbinger of a declining bat that leaves him as a merely very good player, and not a great one.  Josh Hamilton could break down physically (he's never been that durable) or let his discipline slip on or off the field, turning him into an expensive version of Mark Trumbo.  Trumbo himself, meanwhile, may continue to be mystified by the strike zone and turn into late-career Adam Dunn at the age of 27.  One or more or all of those things could happen, and the Angels will have spent a small fortune over the last two winters to put together a good team that doesn't make the playoffs, which would frustrate fans and provide lots of fodder for talking heads on ESPN.

On the flip side, look at that lineup.  Holy hell.  The Angels could, potentially, have one of the best 1-2-3 combinations in baseball history (assuming Mike Scioscia plays with his lineup construction).  And the other six guys aren't exactly slouches.  We'll get to them later.  Right now consider the first three batters opposing pitchers will have to deal with when playing the Angels:

1.  Mike Trout (CF) - R
2.  Josh Hamilton (LF) - L
3.  Albert Pujols (1B) - R

That is simply terrifying.  The leadoff man is the best overall player in baseball, who gets on base at a 40% clip, hits for power (30 home runs and a .564 slugging percentage), and is probably the best baserunner in the game.  Right behind him is the most dangerous power hitter in baseball, a man with light tower power to all fields, capable of carrying an entire offense for weeks at a time (Hamilton's first two months of 2012: .368/.415/.764 with 21 home runs).  Behind HIM is the best right-handed hitter of his generation, a man who should (barring injury or his performance totally falling off a cliff) become the third-youngest man to hit his 500th home run sometime in 2013 (trailing Alex Rodriguez and Jimmie Foxx), a three-time MVP who has never hit fewer than 30 home runs or struck out more than 93 times in a season (and then only once, as a rookie).  Did you know that Pujols' lowest OPS+ in a season is 141?  That he has had at least 300 total bases in every single season of his career?  His consistency is astounding.  So, to recap, you have the most electric player in baseball, the scariest power bat in baseball, and the most consistent hitter in baseball.  Wow.  Now look at the rest of the lineup (conceivably):

4.  Mark Trumbo (RF) - R
5.  Kendrys Morales (DH) - B
6.  Howie Kendrick (2B) - R
7.  Alberto Callaspo (3B) - B
8.  Chris Iannetta (C) - R
9.  Erick Aybar (SS) - B

If Trumbo experiences another 26-point jump in his OBP in his third full season, he becomes something like a .285/.343/.525 hitter with 35-home run power, a nasty problem to deal with after running the Trout-Hamilton-Pujols gauntlet.  Morales, meanwhile, another year removed from the nasty leg injury that wiped out more than a season and a half for him, should at least get back to the .290/.346/.487 line he had posted in 51 games prior to the injury in 2010.  Kendrick doesn't walk much, and his strikeout rate has climbed over the past couple of seasons, but he remains a good line-drive hitter.  Callaspo, Iannetta, and Aybar are all above-average for those spots in the lineup.  The Angels could very well have the best lineup in baseball next year, especially given those first four or five spots.

Another result of this signing is that it makes Peter Bourjos expendable.  Bourjos is one of the premier defensive center fielders in baseball, but the Angels' outfield just got even more crowded, and since there's almost no way that the Angels find a taker for Vernon Wells (.230/.279/.403 in 2012, owed 42 million over the next two years), he will stay and Bourjos will probably have to go.  How about a trade?  The Angels lack any serious pitching depth behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.  Recent trade acquisition Tommy Hanson is still young, but his arm may actually fall off at the shoulder sometime in 2013.  Joe Blanton is not just a fifth starter when your other four are Halladay/Lee/Hamels/Oswalt, he's a fifth starter, period (although pitching in the Big A should boost his numbers).  There are a couple of intriguing options out there, most notably the Mets, who a) need young talent and b) seem intent on low-balling R.A. Dickey despite his recent Cy Young, his knuckleball, and his three-year track record of successful pitching.  But supposedly the Mets don't like Bourjos, even though a center fielder who catches everything would be just what the doctor ordered for Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and the other young members of the Mets' pitching staff.  Well, let's turn to our old friends in Tampa Bay, who still have pitching to spare after the trade of James Shields to Kansas City.

Angels trade OF Peter Bourjos, C Hank Conger, and 1B C.J. Cron to Rays for SP Jeremy Hellickson

But wait, you say, the Rays just traded Shields AND Wade Davis.  Why would they trade their (now) number three starter away also?  Well, for one, they still have Jeff Niemann and Alex Cobb in the majors now, and a bevy of prospects to compete for the fifth spot in their rotation, most notably Jake Odorizzi (acquired in the Shields trade) and Chris Archer, and possibly Alex Colome as well.  So dealing a guy that's not David Price or Matt Moore won't necessarily hurt the Rays.  Hellickson is the logical choice because he will be arbitration-eligible next winter, and as a former Rookie of the Year can probably expect to command more money than the Rays will likely want to give him, given his advanced peripherals.  Hellickson has a touch of gopheritis, but that wouldn't be a problem in spacious Anaheim with Trout patrolling center.  Plus, the Angels get four seasons of control at a position that they need help at now.

As for the Rays, they get a true center fielder (also with four years of team control!) to replace B.J. Upton's stellar defense.  Bourjos' career UZR/150 is an astonishing 23.9 (so that's two dozen runs he should save over the course of a season), and he would be a great fit in Tampa, allowing Desmond Jennings to stay in left and the Rays to play a bigger bat with more mediocre defense in right.  In Conger, the Rays would receive a catcher that Scioscia has buried, a former top prospect who turns just 25 in January and has five more years of team control.  The Rays don't have any elite catching prospects at the upper levels of their system, and the combination of Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton posted a .640 OPS last season, at the ages of 37 and 27, respectively.  Cron is a former catcher who moved to first base after tearing his labrum this past year.  He hit .293/.327/.516 with 27 bombs at the AAA level this past year, but of course his path to the majors is well-blocked in Anaheim, with Pujols and Morales (plus maybe Hamilton in a couple years) firmly occupying the first base and designated hitter spots.  The Rays could stash him in AAA for one more year to develop some more plate discipline while they try the James Loney experiment, then give Cron the job in the spring of 2014.

Whatever else winds up shaking out as a result of the Hamilton signing, the Angels have become the team to watch in the AL West, and they should be both good and entertaining to watch.  The fight for division supremacy between the Angels, Rangers, and A's could be the best division race in baseball, with all three teams capable of winning 95-100 games.  As a baseball fan, I'm hoping that the Trout-Hamilton-Pujols combination does in fact click, because all three are great talents with different skill sets that should, in the end, complement each other well.