Angels still need productivity out of ailing Hamilton
Halos succeeded without him last year, but lineup could use his power
This is going to be a really interesting season for Josh Hamilton … whenever it starts.
Hamilton had surgery on Wednesday to clean up the AC joint in his right shoulder, and the recovery will take six to eight weeks. This is but a temporary blow for the Angels, who have already aligned some interesting depth options to account for the unpredictability of Hamilton's availability. But as difficult as the first two years of the Hamilton-Halos experience have been, the guy is hardly an expendable part of their outfield at this point.
To some, that's a difficult concept to swallow. After all, Hamilton played in just 89 games last year. Flip those digits around and you have the Angels' win total in a year in which they ran away with the American League West.
So Hamilton's health -- or lack thereof -- certainly wasn't a deciding factor in 2014. The Angels had the game's most productive offense even with Hamilton providing only a fraction of his peak-level output (though they certainly could have used better at-bats from him in the Division Series sweep at the hands of the Royals).
Let's not deny, however, just how difficult it's going to be for the Angels to repeat as 98-game winners -- or even anything close to it.
For one, the division has improved. The A's might have drastically reshaped their roster, but they're still considered a threat in the West. The Rangers can't possibly have any worse luck in the health department, so they should be better. The Astros have considerably improved their roster. And a Mariners team that reached the cusp of October last year has made the necessary moves to be considered a viable candidate for the crown.
Then there's recent history. The last team to win 95 or more games one season and win so many as 90 the next was the 2011-12 Reds. Three of the past six teams to win 95 or more finished the next season at .500 or below. Greatness is difficult to attain in today's time of competitive balance, and it's even more difficult to sustain.
I like what general manager Jerry Dipoto has done over the past nine months to rebuild the bullpen and then to add some young, controllable talent to the back end of the rotation. The Angles could have a very good pitching staff if things break right.
But the Angels are still a ballclub built around the bats, and Hamilton, for all his warts, is still a big part of that.
In their bid for retention in the West, the Angels have a lot riding on a healthy Hamilton. They confirmed as much with the December trade to the Dodgers of pending free-agent second baseman Howie Kendrick, who, remember, replaced Hamilton as the cleanup hitter when Hamilton was out most of September.
It's easy enough to say, with the benefit of hindsight, that Hamilton should have had the surgery at season's end. But knowing that even a minimally invasive procedure such can sap a player's power, you can also understand why the rest-and-recovery experiment was preferred. When Hamilton tweaked the shoulder during a workout last week, the 'scope became unavoidable.
So now you wonder -- on top of all the other curiosity about this stage of Hamilton's career -- what can be expected of Hamilton. It was only weeks ago when he was citing a .300 average, 30 homers and 100 RBIs as realistic goals for this season, but, again, the possibility of power problems (such as the ones he endured early in '14 after thumb surgery) are real.
The thing some people seem to have forgotten about Hamilton is that he did have his moments when he was actually on the field last year. He got on base 33 percent of the time, showed the occasional power stroke and had an adjusted OPS 14 points better than league average. It was nothing like his Rangers heyday, but at least it was passable. Yet by season's end, the compilation of injuries -- the shoulder, the rib cage, the upper back -- made him unplayable. And in the Division Series, he was downright unwatchable.
Bracing themselves for the possibility of future bumps and bruises, the Angels targeted Matt Joyce in the trade market this winter, and his natural platoon pairing with Collin Cowgill gives manager Mike Scioscia not only a viable left-field alternative when Hamilton is away, but also the flexibility to give Hamilton consistent at-bats as a designated hitter to preserve his body once he returns.
In the meantime, Hamilton's surgery opens the door for some early-April at-bats for C.J. Cron, an attention-getter not just because of his 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame, but for his booming power bat in a game short on that skill set.
Still, you wonder if this might be too much, too soon for the 25-year-old Cron, who appeared to be overmatched for stretches in the second half of last season. And though his power doesn't come at the expense of his contact rates, he has shown a lack of patience that has impacted his on-base percentages both at the Major and Minor League levels.
Newly acquired Ohio University product Marc Krauss might be another option as a temporary replacement, though his big league output, to date, has been well south of league average.
What it all boils down to is that Hamilton is still very important here, all the more with Kendrick gone. He'll never again be the guy we saw in 2010, but I think the Angels would certainly settle for that aforementioned 114 OPS+ extrapolated over the course of a full season.
Already, the "full season" idea has been compromised by surgery, and the Angels have to hope his recovery timetable holds true.
This is an organization that paid Gary Matthews Jr. $11 million to play elsewhere as recently as 2011 and paid $18.6 million last year to be free of Vernon Wells, who contributed to the Yankees in 2013 but played for no one in '14.
But for now, the Angels need whatever it is a 33-year-old, post-surgery Hamilton can provide.