Angels' poaching of Josh Hamilton escalates rivalry with Rangers to one of game's best

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

This got personal.

It got personal, and it got ugly, and for the next half-decade, as Josh Hamilton wears a Los Angeles Angels uniform and faces the Texas Rangers 19 games every season, the malice will not abate. Welcome to baseball's best new rivalry: Angels vs. Rangers, neither of whom Wednesday acted like their nicknames might suggest.

Los Angeles played the gunslinger, swooping in to steal Hamilton away with a five-year, $125 million contract the club hopes will change the landscape of the American League West in a way that the $300 million-plus invested last year in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson didn't. And the Rangers were more like seraphs, playing innocent to everything, miffed at how it unfolded, curious why they didn't at least get a phone call from Hamilton's agents with a chance to match like Hamilton said so often he would give them.

The race for supremacy in the West turned cutthroat, imbuing a rivalry in name alone with actual malevolence. Hamilton – spurned by fans, needled by ownership, rendered second fiddle by the Rangers' pursuit of Justin Upton and ultimately hunted with a $25 million-a-year offer from a team with the best player in baseball – got the final word with a stroke of the pen. The Angels, for the second consecutive year, poached the fruit of the Rangers' labor. And the Rangers, in the midst of an offseason in which their pursuits have hit dead ends – first Zack Grienke, then James Shields, now this – must regroup and figure out how to compete with the wonder-team Arte Moreno is building in Orange County.

Location is material to this discussion, because it wasn't just the Rangers' supremacy of late that prompted this move. Moreno, the Angels' owner, is fiercely protective of his place in the Southern California market. To see the Los Angeles Dodgers dropping $147 million on Zack Greinke like it's nothing and following the next day with a $61 million investment in Ryu Hyun-jin as if it's but a sawbuck to their bottom line not only changed the landscape of the sport, it transformed Moreno. The Angels couldn't sit around signing Joe Blanton and Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett and trade for Tommy Hanson and call that an offseason. Powerhouses don't do that, not when they're coming off a year in which they blew Mike Trout's historic season and missed the playoffs.

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There are few things in baseball more powerful than a cajoled Arte Moreno. And powerful can mean a number of things: spendthrift, ill-advised, generous, reactionary and perhaps all of the above simultaneously. Barring the Fountain of Youth migrating to Anaheim, the remaining nine years on the soon-to-be-33-year-old Pujols' deal are 1,000-pound anchors. Giving five years to Hamilton is a risk for a different reason: Never has he proven capable of staying healthy. The Rangers avoided giving him a long-term deal because they worried years of drug and alcohol abuse turned his body fragile.

The most valuable people in the Angels organization henceforth will be their training staff, whose job it is to keep Hamilton and Pujols in a lineup that, with Trout up top, features in name alone as fearsome a trio of hitters as in any year, right up there with Ruth-Gehrig-Combs of the Murderers' Row Yankees and Duke-Campy-Hodges with the 1950s Dodgers and Mays-McCovey-Cepeda of the great '60s Giants and A-Rod-Junior-Edgar from the Mariners' heyday. Considering their starting pitching remains suspect at best, the Angels had better hit like all-timers – or make another move to get an arm to complement Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.

Los Angeles has snooped around for the latter, and New York Mets starter R.A. Dickey has been one of their targets, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions. The Angels' surplus of outfielders fits the Mets' need for one, with center fielder Peter Bourjos – a defensive whiz who would fit marvelously in Citi Field's huge outfield – a potential piece as well as Mark Trumbo, who struggled after the All-Star break following a first-half breakout. The Angels could move Kendrys Morales, too, and free up first base for Trumbo. And there's always Vernon Wells, who this year and next is due $24,642,857 – about Hamilton money.

Give a team a reactionary owner and a $3 billion local television contract and that's possible: the $24.6 million backup outfielder, the $240 million deal for a guy who's going to be 42 at the end and the $125 million for a player the rest of baseball worries will fall apart. Feathered into those concerns is what goes unspoken because saying it out loud would be gauche: They don't want to deal with a relapse, either. The Rangers did twice. It was not fun. The knowledge that they don't have to fear the middle-of-the-night phone call anymore gives them a speck of solace on a day when their greatest threat added a player who, when he's healthy and raking, challenges Trout for his best-in-the-game title.

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The Angels' desire to win outweighed any worry about Hamilton. Tens of thousands of addicts live perfectly sober lives in California, even with Hollywood's glitz a perpetual siren. Los Angeles will ape the Rangers' way of doing things with Hamilton, from the minute-by-minute monitoring to the no-cash policy to all of the other tricks that work to keep him clean.

And if they get the star they expect with nine figures guaranteed, the Angels will walk into their first series against the Rangers with chests puffed and steps strutted. Even if they're not a better team than Texas, they'll try to act like it. That's what alpha dogs do, and if they're nothing else, these Angels are a pack of alphas.

The biggest one is at the top. Arte Moreno unfurled one finger toward the southeast and the other up north, and they were neither his thumbs nor his pointers, ring fingers and pinkies. The Rangers – the better-run franchise, the smarter franchise but not the richer franchise – had been silenced, for a day at least, by a stack of bills $125 million high.

They'll respond like they always do, with stealth and intelligence and their hoard of prospects and superior development system, and this rivalry will grow into one of the best in the sport – hopefully in all of sports. It's beautiful: the Angels who aren't so angelic, the Rangers who let them run around lawlessly, and the 19 games where the two meet.

Forget the Yankees and Red Sox, a team that won't spend and another that spends oddly. The AL's greatest rivalry is between the Angels and Rangers. And the best part is, it's just starting.

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