The most prized free agent last winter, Josh Hamilton, is having an epic fail with the Angels. Imagine if he were part of Mariners futility, as the bosses wanted, for $100 million-plus.
After a pleasant emotional spike from winning a series from the Oakland A’s, Mariners fans who haven’t abandoned the exercise are parsing good from bad to find a way forward in a season that reaches midpoint this week. Rather than engage in the familiar will-he/won’t-he regarding Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, Dustin Ackley, et al, I propose to look at something that worked out right, which nevertheless defines the wrongness of Seattle’s ways.
One name: Josh Hamilton.
Tuesday in Anaheim against the Mariners, the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 2010 hit into three double plays and struck out twice. In a 3-2 loss by the Angels that he could have reversed with the simplicity of a single or even a sacrifice fly — he left seven runners on base — Hamilton accounted for eight of the Angels’ allotted 27 outs, which might be a more difficult single-game feat than hitting three home runs.
Overlooked in Seattle because of the modest joy in the only win during a four-game series that probably sank the season, Hamilton became the just the second player since 1916 to strike out twice and ground into three double plays in a game. Not even Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins, Carlos Peguero, Bucky Jacobsen, Scott Spiezio . . .
“It’s been tough,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia told reporters after the game. “I don’t think anyone feels this more than Josh, and I don’t think there’s anyone more confident in his ability than Josh. He’s been working very hard in drills, hopefully making strides and getting there. He takes his lack of production very hard, very seriously.”
I’m sure that Hamilton is sincere, feels bad, works hard and, as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll likes to toss in conversationally, “all of that.” But his first half-season as an Angel is the kind of erratic, flaky play that can come from an erratic, flaky guy who is in a daily battle to maintain sobriety, in which, as far as has been reported, he has been successful. In the big picture, that feat is more important, so good for him.
In the little picture, where the Mariners dwell, can you imagine what the team would be like if they hired the guy out of free agency the past winter, as they so ardently professed was their intention?
Hamilton, 32, is hitting .207 with an OPS of .640 that includes 10 homers, 25 RBIs, 76 strikeouts and 19 walks. After being dropped to seventh in the lineup, he was benched over weekend — a three-game sweep by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who play two in Seattle starting Tuesday — ostensibly to rest an ailing wrist. (For comparison, former Mariners shortstop and human highlight film Munenori Kawasaaki is starring for Toronto, hitting .228 with an OPS of .670.)
At 33-43 and a half-game behind the Mariners, the Angels are off to their worst start in 20 years and seem destined to miss the playoffs for a fourth season in a row. Multiple reasons beyond Hamilton’s flop are at work in Anaheim, and to be fair, Hamilton could turn his season around with one at-bat. He’s that kind of a talent.
But Angels owner Arte Moreno guaranteed Hamilton five years at $125 million. A falloff toward the end of the contract from his great numbers as a Rangers star was predictable by anyone. But the first three months? Jeez.
In the free agent market, the Mariners claimed to be there with big money for Hamilton — $100 million over four years, with some $25 million in options. But along with many others who didn’t need a counseling degree to see the hard miles on Hamilton from addiction, I said it would be, to quote Otter in “Animal House,” “a really stupid and futile gesture.”
As with convicted wife-beater Milton Bradley but for different reasons, Hamilton is a high-maintenance dude for which the Mariners are utterly unequipped. Having led the majors over the past three season in walk-off losses (by a wide margin), they have displayed little ability to bear down for three hours despite minimal distractions (including fan noise).
Imagine the Hamilton flop amid the mediocrity. General manager Jack Zduriencik probably would be gone, even though his bosses, Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong, would have approved the deal. Wedge would have spent his media hours making excuses for Hamilton that probably would have turned his chin whiskers into porcupine quills. And the team would have had a worse record.
Instead of hiring Hamilton to play right field, the Mariners have used six players (Mike Morse 37 games, Endy Chavez 25, Jason Bay 15, Michael Saunders 8, Peguero 3, Raul Ibanez 1) who combined for a batting average of .265, an OPS of .735, 11 homers, 30 RBIs, 62 strikeouts and 11 walks — a cumulative total significantly better than Hamilton and a little above major league average for the position.
While credit is due for a good Plan B salvage job, the point is that Plan A should never been considered. While it is easy to say now, frankly, it was just as easy to say last winter.
The Mariners bosses, embarrassed by epidemic fan apathy, were in full panic. Hamilton was the marquee free agent but damaged goods, visible to all. He could have been part of no “plan” imagined by Zduriencik or any sentient GM, if for no other reason than it would have precluded a similar investment in pitcher Felix Hernandez, whose $175 million deal was a more effective use of resources on multiple levels.
Which brings us to the next five weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline, which at the moment finds the Mariners exactly where fans don’t want the bosses to be — nine games below .500 and not wanting to surrender, for imagined PR reasons, the flicker of hope.
The same people are still in charge, the field results are similar, fans are fewer, the tiny uptick in the standings primarily is because they were out-dumbed by the Angels on Hamilton. The previous midseason trades of Doug Fister and Cliff Lee are about to be revisited in the media.
The only major differences this summer is that Zduriencik and Wedge are in their contract years, and many of their most productive players are on one-year contracts. Explain to me how the panic has lessened from when signing Josh Hamilton was said to be a good idea.