Josh Hamilton and Not Wanting to Play in Seattle
A common refrain over the last few months is that it is clear that no good hitters want to play in Seattle. The Mariners went after Josh Hamilton, but he signed with the Angels. They traded for Justin Upton, and he used his no-trade clause to block the deal. That’s enough for people to decide that the team simply can’t get a big time hitter to come here when they have a say in the matter.
Here’s the problem – that entire argument rests on the idea that the Mariners outbid the Angels for Hamilton’s services. From what has been publicly reported, that’s just not true.
The Angels guaranteed Hamilton $125 million over five years. According to Ryan Divish, the Mariners guaranteed Hamilton $100 million over four years, with two vesting options that could have eventually pushed it as high as $150 million over six years.
The Mariners spin is that, including the vesting options, their offer was stronger than the Angels offer. But, in reality, the Angels offer was almost certainly the better one for Hamilton from a strictly financial decision. According to Divish, the options for years five and six vested at around 400 to 450 plate appearances, so the Mariners were simply hedging against the risk of Hamilton suffering a debilitating injury that might prematurely end his career, or at least end his time as a full-time player.
Let’s just say that Hamilton believes he has a 20% chance of sustaining a major problematic injury — a torn ACL, major hip surgery, a debilitating concussion, whatever — at some point in the next four years. In those cases, he would clearly be better off with the Angels offer, since he’d have an extra guaranteed year at $25 million.
Now, let’s deal with the other 80%, where Hamilton stays healthy and is reasonably productive over the next few seasons, so that he plays enough to have both options vest and earns the full $150 million that the Mariners reportedly put on the table. In that scenario, he’s better off with the Mariners offer, but how much better off?
The fact that both options vested means that he’s remained fairly healthy and productive in his mid-30s. Let’s assume that he’s still an above average player, because he’s average or worse, the Mariners would be incentivized to make sure that a $25 million option for his age 37 season didn’t end up getting triggered. What do we think an above average player, even a 37-year-old, would going to get in free agency in five years?
Right now, we know that the market price of a win is around $5 to $6 million apiece, and is steadily going up as new television money flows into Major League Baseball. Factoring in even 5% inflation — and it very well may be higher than that, depending on how long this TV contract bubble persists — over the next few years would push the average price of win to close to $7 million apiece by the time Hamilton’s deal expires with the Angels. If we’re assuming Hamilton’s an above average player, that puts him in the +2 to +3 win range, meaning that he’d be looking at a salary in the range of $14 to $21 million per year, and probably for more than one year.
Need an example? Look at Torii Hunter. He’s been a consistently above average player through his mid-30s, and at age 36, just had a very nice season for the Angels. He landed a two year, $26 million deal for his age 37/38 seasons with the Tigers. Do some annual 5% inflation adjustments on that contract, and you get something closer to 2/33 in another five years. In other words, if Hamilton plays well enough to get the 2018 option to vest, he’d probably have played well enough to land a larger contract in free agency than the option was worth to begin with.
In reality, just for the Mariners offer to be considered equal to the Angels, we have to take as a given that the 2017 option would have vested, and then both sides were offering 5/125. The only thing that pushes the Mariners offer ahead is the value of the 2018 option, and the only way that option vests is if Hamilton has played well enough during his first five years that 1/25 isn’t a huge discount over what his market value would be as a free agent.
Essentially, Hamilton would have been risking $25 million in guaranteed money for the right to have an extra year at a slightly higher AAV — by this back-of-the-envelope calculation, maybe something like an extra $8.5 million in 2018 — on a shorter deal than he likely could have gotten as a free agent.
And, realistically, even if had a Lance Berkman style health crisis towards his mid-30s, did you see what Lance Berkman just signed for this winter? Coming off a season where he got 97 plate appearances, headed into his age 37, as a strictly DH-only player, the Rangers gave Berkman $11 million in guaranteed money. If Hamilton plays well for the first four years (a requirement to get the 2017 option to vest and equalize the two offers), a significant injury in year five still wouldn’t eliminate his chance of earning a pretty decent paycheck in 2018. The Mariners getting a vesting option for that sixth season simply can’t be viewed as an additional $25 million benefit for Hamilton, because if he played well enough for even the first option to vest, he would have established a pretty high base for his 2018 salary anyway.
On the other hand, in the 20% case where Hamilton was so broken that neither option vested, he’s probably dealing with the kind of debilitating injury that limits you to a very low base salary, such as the one Travis Hafner is about to sign with the Yankees for $2 million and some incentives. Even inflating that, you’re never going to see these older broken down guys getting large contracts, so Hamilton would have been risking $20 million or so for the right to maybe get a marginal gain in salary in 2018.
There’s just no real reason to think that 4/100 with a couple of vesting options should have been preferable to 5/125 for a player like Hamilton. Vesting options are simply not equal to guaranteed years, and if that was the Mariners offer, it’s disingenuous to claim that Hamilton “took less money” to play in Anaheim.
We know that Upton vetoed a trade to Seattle, and because of comments made by his agent’s brother, we can be pretty sure that he just really wasn’t interested in playing here. Maybe that was because he hates Seattle, hates Safeco, and hates traveling, or maybe it’s because he knew there was a chance vetoing the trade would cause him to end up in Atlanta — the specifics of why he vetoed the deal, we don’t know. But that’s really the only case where we can say that the Mariners were the high bidder for a player and didn’t get him. And, sorry, but one player making one decision doesn’t make a trend.
If you want to believe that no one wants to play for the Mariners, you’ll need more evidence that this off-season to prove it.