Josh Hamilton would help the Seattle Mariners. That is obvious. They need his presence, his star power, his fluid left-handed swing. But if they think he alone is the answer to their offensive woes, they might be headed toward a costly calamity.
The Mariners remained firmly in the Hamilton sweepstakes as the baseball winter meetings adjourned Thursday, discussing three-year deals with the free-agent outfielder in the range of $20 million to $25 million per season, according to my colleague Ken Rosenthal.
It’s hard to imagine Hamilton signing with the Mariners — the American League’s worst team during the past three seasons — for less than four years and $100 million. On a club that opened the 2012 season with a payroll near $85 million, Hamilton would account for roughly one-quarter of the budget and probably surpass Felix Hernandez as the franchise’s highest-paid player.
The only way to justify spending that money would be … to spend more money.
Unless Mariners ownership is prepared to take its payroll to around $110 million — as it has before — it should pass on the top free-agent hitter and shop elsewhere. It makes no sense for the Mariners to sign Hamilton unless they are committed to surrounding him with a championship-caliber lineup.
Rather than the culmination of the Mariners’ offseason spending, he needs to be the beginning.
For a moment, set aside concerns over Hamilton’s past drug abuse and durability. Perhaps the greatest flaw among his baseball credentials is a tendency to swing early in the count at pitches outside the strike zone. In fact, Hamilton offered at the highest percentage of non-strikes — 45.4, according to FanGraphs.com — of any hitter in the major leagues last season.
Put another way: Hamilton was the least disciplined hitter in baseball, despite a number of factors that should have increased the number of hittable pitches he saw: Base-stealing threats Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus were frequently aboard when Hamilton came to bat, and consistent run producers like Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz followed him in the order.
The Mariners lineup, as presently constituted, would offer Hamilton no such support. Seattle finished last in the American League in runs scored this year … and last year … and the year before that … and the year before that. Yes, the team is moving in the fences at Safeco Field this winter. But the Emerald Diamond never will be confused with a bandbox.
The Mariners want Hamilton, in part because their No. 3 hitters combined for the worst OPS at that station for any AL team last season. But if they fail to improve in the No. 4 spot — where they also had the league’s lowest production — how often would Hamilton be pitched around in important situations?
At the very least, general manager Jack Zduriencik would need to acquire a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter to slot behind Hamilton. (No, the newly signed Jason Bay doesn’t count.) The Mariners are known to have interest in trade candidates Jason Kubel (Arizona) and Mike Morse (Washington), as well as free agent Nick Swisher. Any would be a significant upgrade over this year’s cleanup rotation: Jesus Montero, John Jaso and Justin Smoak.
Even if Zduriencik signs Hamilton and acquires a new cleanup man, he can’t consider his offseason shopping complete. The Mariners’ first and second hitters combined for the AL’s worst on-base percentage between the top two spots this year. It would be foolish for the Mariners to make a nine-figure investment in one of the preeminent RBI men in baseball and have no one on base to be driven home.
Chicago Cubs outfielder David DeJesus, who had a .350 on-base percentage this year while spending most of his time as a leadoff man, is one potential fit via trade. He’s signed to an affordable contract — $4.25 million salary in 2013, $6.5 million club option in 2014 — and the Mariners, with their bounty of young pitching, can supply the Cubs with a long-term asset for their rebuilding project.
It might cost upwards of $30 million to $35 million in 2013 alone to acquire Hamilton, Morse and DeJesus. That would require a payroll increase. If team ownership doesn’t have the appetite for that — amid declining attendance at Safeco Field — it should forget about Hamilton and save money for another offseason.
There would be no shame in that, particularly for an organization that has developed a penchant for making the wrong moves at the wrong times. In 2006, the Mariners’ Triple-A affiliate included Morse, Adam Jones, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo and Eric O’Flaherty. All were traded — or waived, in the case of O’Flaherty — for players who made negligible contributions to the team.
If the Mariners merely had kept the players they had, Morse, Jones and Choo might constitute the best offensive outfield in the game. Cabrera made the All-Star team in each of the past two seasons, and O’Flaherty is one of the majors’ top left-handed relievers. Instead, the Mariners are at 11 years and counting without a playoff berth, while their fans have gone from restless to apathetic. Hamilton can change both of those things. Just not by himself.