So far, Hamilton’s a bust for Angels, and the M’s are relieved

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comApril 29, 2013 

Josh Hamilton’s abominable April inched closer to its finish Sunday at Safeco Field, where the veteran outfielder looked less like the prize acquisition of baseball’s 2013 free-agent class than a desperate hacker in need of a swing coach.

On an afternoon the Mariners and Angels combined to strike out 19 times, Hamilton wasn’t the only batter who had trouble making contact.

Hamilton was just the only batter who had been the object of a crazy-money bidding war in the American League West, won by an Angels team that has fallen to fourth place.

In return for his $125 million investment, owner Arte Moreno has gotten a quickly regressing superstar whose contract, long before its 2017 expiration, is looking like an albatross.

Three years after he was named league MVP – almost a year after he hit four homers and collected 18 total bases in one game – Hamilton owns three extra-hits. His on-base percentage of .267 is lower than the .311 of the perpetually struggling Justin Smoak.

And to think: last winter Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik identified Hamilton, 31, as the solution to his team’s anemic offense.

Zduriencik reportedly submitted a four-year, $100 million offer with vesting options for two other seasons.

When Hamilton declined it for an Angels offer that guaranteed an additional $35 million, Zduriencik went public in his praise of Seattle ownership’s earnest attempt to woo an impact bat.

Just because the Mariners weren’t able to seal the deal, Zduriencik emphasized, does not mean they weren’t serious participants.

The team had the will to acquire Hamilton.

It didn’t work out. Life goes on.

I didn’t talk with Zduriencik on Sunday, but I suspect his tone would have been a bit different – something along the line of “Whew!”

Manager Eric Wedge, meanwhile, avoided the topic altogether.

“I’m not talking about Josh Hamilton,” Wedge told me, and can you blame him?

Even after the Mariners won their first series of the season with a 2-1 victory in the finale, they remain five games below .500. A brutal May schedule, with 17 road dates, awaits.

Hamilton’s struggle to resemble the hitter he once was – and has been paid $125 million to be – is the least of Wedge’s worries.

And yet, consider the plight the Mariners would be facing if Hamilton had decided to relocate from Texas to Seattle: four years guaranteed by owners who wouldn’t have been thrilled about the idea of negotiating with other free agents; four years of a .267 on-base percentage; four years of another former All-Star who came to the Pacific Northwest and got lost.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was among those who argued that Hamilton was precisely the kind of talent the Mariners needed. Sure, he slumped in the second half, and he virtually disappeared down the stretch, and there was all that soap-opera stuff off the field.

But for once, Seattle’s remote place on the corner of the map figured to serve as a benefit. Hamilton would get away from the glare of a major market, and be able to concentrate on the game he was born to play with rare ability.

I guess this is why I’ve pursued a career about writing about baseball decisions instead of, like, making actual baseball decisions.

Then again, the Angels know what they’re doing, and so do the Rangers. Both organizations wanted Hamilton. I might not have any talent-evaluation skills, but at least I was in good company.

Hamilton is not a lost cause, by the way. The history of free agents under pressure to fulfill under great expectations is a long one. Hamilton’s teammate Albert Pujols endured a similarly inauspicious start to his Angels career last season.

But as I watched Hamilton strike out twice Sunday, as I watched him flail at the same pitches a disciplined hitter takes to work the count in his favor, I realized I was watching a $125 million bust.

The Mariners, I’ve heard it said, are cursed, doomed to suffer karmic payback for the miracle playoff run in 1995 and the 116 games they won – without an AL pennant to show for it – in 2001.

Perhaps. But Somebody Up There must like them because they were ready to spend $100 million on a hitter who has no clue, and they were spared.

Hamilton has a reputation for some dingy behavior. He’s not a goofball, exactly, although the term is in the ballpark. But Safeco Field fans should never disparage Josh Hamilton.

By turning down Seattle, he saved the Mariners more than a ton of money. He saved them four years of grief, four years that would’ve made the curious, head-case sagas of Jeff Cirillo and Chone Figgins seem like simple wrong turns into a cul-de-sac.

And while Wedge had no words regarding Hamilton, I’ve got one.

Whew!

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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