Deciphering the market for Josh Hamilton is like trying to solve a Rubik's cube that keeps changing colors. All we know is that whoever signs him is going to have a ton of cash lying around and enough guts to gamble on his body not being blown apart by a stiff breeze.
All it will take is one bold owner, which is why even small-market clubs like the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners and the Milwaukee Brewers have been linked to Hamilton. However, certain baseball pundits have warned not to count out the big spenders. The Los Angeles Dodgers, in particular, could swoop in and sign Hamilton at any moment.
So could the Philadelphia Phillies or the New York Yankees.
When Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com went around asking agents and various executives at the GM Meetings where Hamilton might end up, the Phillies emerged as one of four clubs that could make a serious run at him. They're supposedly "quietly checking" on Hamilton, and they may just give him what he wants if they deem him the best solution for their center field vacancy.
There's a lot less to go on where the Yankees are concerned. Despite the fact that they could use a slugging outfielder, they don't seem to have any legitimate interest in the 2010 AL MVP.
But the pundits have repeatedly injected the Yankees into the Hamilton discussion anyway, seemingly just out of instinct. Most recently, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe wrote that the Yankees are a team to "keep an eye on" in the Hamilton sweepstakes.
That's obviously more speculation than anything else. But in Cafardo's defense, it's not like the Yankees don't have the money, and it's not like Brian Cashman has never made a major transaction with little notice.
Do I buy that the Yankees are a legitimate player in the Hamilton sweepstakes? For that matter, should anyone?
Not really. Hal Steinbrenner wants to get the club's payroll under $189 million by 2014, and signing Hamilton would certainly compromise that goal. It would also likely mean the end of Robinson Cano's career as a Yankee, as Hamilton's new deal would leave little room for a new deal for Cano. And since Cano is a better player than Hamilton, it's highly unlikely that the Yankees would rather have him than Cano.
I also have trouble buying the Phillies as a potential fit. They don't need another left-handed slugger in the middle of their lineup with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and Hamilton is more cut out to be an everyday left fielder than an everyday center fielder at this point in his career.
Plus, the Phillies already have about $136 million in salaries committed for 2013 and about $98 million in salaries committed for the 2014 season. Though ESPN's Buster Olney says that the Phillies are apparently "OK" with paying Hamilton a high annual salary, adding another bloated contract to the club's pile of bloated contracts makes little sense.
Thus, if they were to add Hamilton, they'd be providing ultimate proof that they just don't get it. The same goes for the Yankees, albeit for slightly different reasons.
Regarding the Phillies, take a second to recall what the construction of their roster was like back when they won the World Series in 2008. They were actually a relatively cheap team, as they entered the season with a payroll under $100 million and had only two players who earned seven figures that year.
Salaries were low because the Phillies were not a team overloaded with high-priced free agents. On the contrary, four of their top six offensive players in terms of rWAR were acquired via the amateur draft. Cole Hamels, the club's top pitcher, was also a product of the draft.
Elsewhere, the Phillies got great production out of a Rule 5 Draft pick (Shane Victorino) and a low-risk free-agent signing (Jayson Werth). Brad Lidge came over in a trade and proceeded to recapture his old form as a lights-out closer.
As such, the 2008 Phillies were not built with a big checkbook. They were built with good scouting and clever maneuvering on the part of then-GM Pat Gillick.
To his credit, Ruben Amaro, Jr. has made his share of clever moves ever since he succeeded Gillick in 2008. His primary motivation, however, has been to go for bigger, bolder moves. He's the one responsible for bringing the likes of Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Jonathan Papelbon to Philadelphia.
Amaro is also the one responsible for making Philly's payroll close to twice what it was in '08, as the Phillies opened the 2012 season with a payroll of right around $172 million. In fact, Philly's payroll has increased every year Amaro has been calling the shots.
When you're spending so much money on players, the results had better be there. And while the Phillies did go back to the World Series in 2009 and won the NL East in 2009, 2010 and 2011, Amaro has yet to deliver a championship.
And after what happened this year, it's fair to wonder if the Phillies' window to win a championship has closed for good. They still have some talent on their roster, but many of the guys making the big bucks can no longer be relied on to pull their own weight.
Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are past their respective primes. Roy Halladay finally broke down in 2012, and you obviously have to worry that he may not fully bounce back in 2013, seeing as how he's going to turn 36 in early May. Cliff Lee, likewise, ran into some some injury trouble this year, and he's not getting any younger.
It's when you consider the state of these players that the notion of the Phillies signing Hamilton becomes truly baffling. They already have more than their fair share of high-priced, decaying players to worry about, so why would they sign a guy who comes with major red flags pertaining to both his health and his personal off-the-field history?
If the Phillies were to sign Hamilton to the $25 million-per-year deal he's reportedly looking for, they'd add an aging player making more than $20 million per year to a group that already includes three such players. The pressure would be on them to win the World Series right away to justify the signing, as the future beyond 2013 would look rather ominous.
Instead of spending $25 million on Hamilton, the Phillies could take that money and use it on several other areas of need such as third base, center field and their bullpen.
This should be precisely what the Yankees have in mind at the moment as well. In fact, they should be even more frightened of committing $25 million per year to Hamilton than the Phillies should be.
The Yankees know from what they did in 2009 that it's indeed possible to buy a championship. They already had a very good team to begin with, and they made themselves unquestionably the best team in baseball by committing over $400 million to CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira.
The payoff was immediate, as Sabathia, Burnett and Teixeira were all major players in the Yankees' run to their 27th championship in 2009. But here we are just three years later, and the Yankees are paying Burnett to play for someone else, and both Teixeira and Sabathia are showing signs that their twilight years have arrived. Teixeira's OPS has declined every year since '09, and Sabathia had to go on the disabled list twice this past season.
The Yankees are committed to both Sabathia and Teixeira for the long haul, as both are locked up through 2016 (Sabathia also has an option for 2017). They're also committed to Alex Rodriguez for the long haul, and at this point his best service to his employers is as a reminder that the last thing they want is more aging players under contract through their late 30s. He's declining quite sharply at the age of 37, yet he's still owed $114 million over the next five years.
If the Yankees were to sign Hamilton, they'd no doubt try to justify the move on the grounds that it was a willingness to hand out big contracts that led to the club's championship in 2009. If so, they'd be conveniently overlooking the fact that they weren't adding decaying players to a core of decaying players back in 2009. That's more or less what they'd be doing if they were to sign Hamilton, and time would only serve to make his contract more of a burden.
The Yankees are better off doing the same thing that the Phillies are better off doing. Instead of giving Hamilton a $25 million paycheck every year from now until who knows when, they should spend that money on the hole they have in right field and on their various shortcomings on their bench and in their bullpen. They would also be wise to set some payroll space aside for an extension for Robinson Cano.
To reiterate what I said earlier, this is precisely what I'm expecting the Yankees to do. They know they have too many little fish to catch to worry about catching one big fish, and they also have to worry about not bloating their payroll too much in preparation for the 2014 season.
And yes, it helps that George Steinbrenner isn't around to overrule Brian Cashman's better instincts. Nobody's going to order him to sign Josh Hamilton, whatever the cost.
As such, it's actually a little easier to see the Phillies splurging on Hamilton. But if they do, their risk would be the same as the Yankees'. They'd be rolling the dice on everything going well for one year—maybe two—but the chances of total disaster happening instead would be just as strong.
What both clubs must recognize is that chasing championships by spending big bucks is a fool's errand. The Yankees managed to pull it off in 2009, sure, but they shouldn't be seen as a role model because we're unlikely to ever see a spending spree like theirs ever again. Plus, the 2009 Yankees stand out as an anomaly in the grand scheme of things.
It wasn't big free-agent signings that delivered a title to the Chicago White Sox in 2005, the Phillies in 2008, the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 or 2011, or the San Francisco Giants in 2010 or 2012. The 2007 Boston Red Sox may have spent big bucks on free agents, but their success had more to do with many of their homegrown players becoming productive major leaguers.
These clubs proved that it's a heck of a lot smarter to try and win championships with efficient spending rather than big spending, and the best way to spend efficiently is to draft wisely and to acquire players who have the potential to drastically outperform team-friendly contracts (i.e. not players like Hamilton).
Which club strikes you as a more likely destination for Hamilton?
As both the Cardinals and Giants can vouch, you need to embrace turnover in order to be in a position to acquire players like that. Few of the players from Cardinals' 2006 roster were still around in 2011, and relatively few members of the Giants' 2010 championship roster carried over to their 2012 roster. Both clubs were careful not to weigh themselves down with immovable contracts, and they were thus able to make the changes they needed to make in between championships. In many cases, these changes consisted of bringing aboard players who went on to outperform their contracts.
With so many big contracts on their hands, the Phillies and Yankees don't have this kind of maneuverability. It's a fate they signed up for when they agreed to all the massive deals they've handed out in recent years. The idea was for them to augment their rosters, but what's happened is that they've effectively chained themselves to a core of players that may not be good enough for the task at hand.
If either the Phillies or the Yankees were to sign Hamilton, it would be more of the same. The Phillies will have made their core of older, expensive players older and more expensive, and the Yankees will have made their core of older, expensive players older and more expensive. The Phillies' lack of maneuverability would get worse, and so would the Yankees'.
It would be championship or bust for either club, and the smart money would be on bust.
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