You really gotta love the mystery team. The Rangers are interested in re-signing Josh Hamilton. The Red Sox are having discussions about the guy. The Mariners have been pushing hard this whole time. The Yankees and the Phillies may or may not be in some kind of possibly external dialogue with somebody who may or may not be Hamilton’s agent. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Well hello, Los Angeles.
|Not pictured: Rangers fans smiling. Anywhere. (US Presswire)|
Hamilton is obviously an incredibly talented baseball player, and any time a player with an eight WAR season under his belt changes teams, the balance of power will shift into a new direction. The magnitude of that shift depends not only on the quality of the moving player, but on a handful of factors like the quality of the two teams involved in the move and the state of both of their division races. It’s an analysis that can get really complicated really quickly, and it’s more than safe to say that a lot of moves that initially seem to be world shatterers end up playing no part in the eventual outcome of things.
But I’d be hard-pressed to think of a recent move that turned the narrative of an upcoming pennant chase upside down more than this one. Josh Hamilton just grabbed the AL West chessboard and sent all of the pieces flying onto the floor. Let’s recap.
Last season (that means 2012, since we’re in that awkward this/last/next phase of the baseball calendar), the A’s finished on top of the division with 94 wins. The Rangers finished in second place with 93, while the Angels finished four games further behind with 89. A simple Pythagorean expectation calculation narrows the gap a little bit at 92, 91, and 88 wins, respectively. Baseball Prospectus’ third order wins calculation, which strips away context-dependence while adjusting for strength of schedule, had Oakland at 89, Texas at 95, and Los Angeles at 93. To make a long story short, it was an incredibly close division with three teams bunched up at the front of the pack. All three teams could have made very good arguments detailing why they would be the team to beat going into 2013.
It’s obviously difficult to say with any sort of precision, but most indications pointed towards a slightly less muddy division picture in 2013, even if only because two of the three teams didn’t change very much. Before losing Hamilton, the Rangers looked to field a mostly similar team in 2013 as they did last year, losing a few interesting names like Mike Napoli and Koji Uehara, while adding Joakim Soria. The net result shouldn’t have been too far removed from their 2012 endpoint, which would have put the Rangers in a prime position to contend for the division title once again. The A’s made even fewer moves, counting on their young starting pitching gaining another notch on their belts, while losing the talented, yet oft-injured starter Brandon McCarthy.
The Angels, on the other hand, were all set to lose two fifths of their starting rotation in Zack Greinke and Dan Haren, in addition to right fielder Torii Hunter. It’s hard to lose a guy of Greinke’s caliber and stay competitive in a division where the margin for error is razor thin. By no means were the Angels out of the race, but a small uphill climb to pull ahead of Texas and Oakland wasn’t sounding too farfetched. Before last season, the A’s revamped their starting rotation and the Angels added Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and C.J. Wilson. If those 2012 moves were two division rivals pulling out all of the stops in a bold attempt to take down the American League juggernaut Rangers, the 2013 AL West fight looked to be more of a second try than an entirely new fight.
And then in swept the mystery team.
Is Hamilton’s presence large enough to push the Angels out of being just another contender and into a position as the division favorite? How will the Rangers cope with losing not only their best player, but a national icon who starred in a real life Home Run Derby so unrealistic that Lifetime would probably pass on a made-for-TV movie adaptation for being too cloying and saccharine? Did the Angels and the Rangers just balance themselves out to the point that the A’s will end up looking down at the both of them in September?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. What I do know is that the tightest division race in baseball just got a whole lot more interesting.