We have to hand it to the Los Angeles Angels: They sure know how to surprise us at this time of year.
Exactly one year and five days after swooping in unexpectedly to sign last winter's highest-profile free agent hitter, Albert Pujols, the Angels did it again on Thursday, agreeing to a deal with this winter's highest-profile free agent hitter, Josh Hamilton, who signed a reported five-year, $125 million contract.
That's right, Hamilton will remain a member of the American League West, though not with his former Texas Rangers or the Seattle Mariners, who were rumored to be pursuing him. Instead, he's now their competition, and he'll play his games alongside one of baseball's brightest young stars, Mike Trout, batting presumably next to one of its longtime stars, Pujols.
And that's all this is about, the rich getting richer, isn't it?
By landing in L.A., Hamilton makes an already stout lineup even stouter, and if you were to place odds on which of the 30 major league teams will score the most runs in 2013, the Angels would have to be at or near the top. Look at the Angels' 2012 hitting breakdown -- granted, using some arbitrary endpoints:
2012 season overall: .274 AVG/.332 OBP/.433 SLG rates (1st/5th/5th), 4.73 runs/game (4th)
From April 28 through season's end: .278/.336/.442 (1st/3rd/2nd), 4.88 (2nd)
Post-All Star break: .281/.340/.447 (1st/1st/2nd) 5.12 (2nd)
From Aug. 24 through season's end (this is the day that Trout's detractors in the MVP race said he began his "dreadful" slump): .273/.329/.412 (5th/7th/12th), 4.68 (8th)
All those statistics were accrued pre-Hamilton, of course, and let's not overlook this: In the past three seasons combined, he has .313/.370/.583 triple-slash rates of his own, ranking eighth, 26th and third out of 389 hitters with at least 500 plate appearances, driving in 322 runs and scoring 278. There is little question that the Angels will be one of the most supportive teams for their individual players in the counting number categories; runs and RBIs should flow.
That's big news for Trout, who aims to avoid the regression bug; the possible boost to his runs total given Hamilton's presence in the lineup should help alleviate any possible decline in batting average. Hamilton's presence could also be potentially huge for whoever scores the coveted No. 2 spot between Trout and the Pujols-Hamilton 3-4 combination. Erick Aybar, Howard Kendrick and Alberto Callaspo are the three most likely candidates, and AL-only owners seeking possible bargains might like to know that Callaspo has the highest career on-base percentage of them (.335) as well as the highest number in the category in 2012 (.331).
As for Hamilton himself, questions about his future are valid, especially long term. He runs three potential risks as a fantasy pick, even in 2013:
• He no longer has Rangers Ballpark boosting his already outstanding numbers into the stratosphere; he has .315/.373/.592 career rates and an average of 41 home runs per 162 games played there, but .294/.356/.514 rates and a 31-homer average on the road. Rangers hitters also boasted a 12.8 home run/fly ball percentage at Rangers Ballpark from 2010 to '12, while their opponents' number was 10.6 percent. To compare, Angels hitters had a 9.0 home run/fly ball percentage at home in those years, while their opponents had 8.3 percent.
If Hamilton outside Texas is a .290/.350/.500 hitter, fantasy owners might not complain, but it certainly results in the difference between a first-round pick and one who might teeter on the brink of a top-25 overall pick.
• Hamilton has also exhibited in the past couple seasons a disturbing trend for a 31-year-old slugger: He has an increasing penchant for swings and misses. Hamilton's 162 whiffs in 2012 were by far a career high, as was his 25.5 percent K rate (percentage of total plate appearances) and his 36 percent miss rate on all swings. It's that latter number that's troubling; it represented the highest rate in the majors among qualified hitters. It might also explain his so-so .259/.323/.510 second half, when he struck out in 29.3 percent of his trips to the plate and missed on a whopping 38 percent of his swings.
Whether that was a one-year aberration is unclear, but Hamilton's age hints that he's on the latter end of any possible prime of career, and these numbers are potential evidence that he's approaching his decline phase.
• Injuries and makeup have been, are and will remain a question for Hamilton for the remainder of his career, and let's not overlook that the 146 games he played last season were the second-most he has in any single year. He has made three career trips to the disabled list in six seasons, averaging 123 games per year. Last year, he missed time to a variety of injuries and illnesses. Now beyond his 30th birthday, Hamilton isn't any more likely to stay healthy than he has shown thus far in his big league career.
The sum of it is a player who actually suffers somewhat in the overall rankings, as Hamilton drops from 22nd in my initial top 250 to 26th, right behind Justin Upton, a player Hamilton's former Rangers team has been pursuing this winter. Given the choice, I'd prefer a more conservative approach with the 31-year-old Hamilton in a more pitching-oriented environment.
The rest of his Angels teammates, however, get a slight boost in fantasy value. For example, Trout's candidacy as the No. 1 overall player strengthens -- I'm currently wavering between him, Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Braun for the top spot, as they're effectively Nos. 1, 1A and 1B -- and my confidence in top-100-ranked players like Mark Trumbo (83rd) and Erick Aybar (86th) increases.