The good news for the Los Angeles Angels is that Josh Hamilton won't be suspended for his offseason drug relapse, after an arbitrator ruled Hamilton did not violate the conditions of his drug treatment program.
The bad news for the Angels is now they have to figure out what to do with Hamilton once he returns from his shoulder injury (which has him sidelined for at least a couple of more weeks) and pay him a lot of money.
As for commissioner Rob Manfred not suspending Hamilton after he self-reported his "slip" in the offseason, I'm OK with that. Once the arbitrator ruled in favor of Hamilton, it left the commissioner with little choice. Hamilton is an addict, and as long as he's following protocol like submitting to all his drug tests, allowing him to play is the right decision. If the Angels were worried about a possible relapse when they signed Hamilton two years ago, they could have insisted on some sort of clause in his contract that gave them an out if Hamilton tested positive for a drug of abuse. (Of course, Hamilton's agents would have never allowed him to sign such a deal.)
So now the big question: What can Hamilton actually give the Angels? Last we saw him was in the playoffs last October, when Mike Scioscia put him in the lineup even though he was clearly injured (he had played just four games in September). Hamilton went 0-for-13 in the Division Series loss to Kansas City and while Angels fans booed him, he never should have been in the lineup; Hamilton became a scapegoat, but that one falls on Scioscia.
After hitting .285/.354/.577 and finishing fifth in the MVP voting with the Texas Rangers in 2012, Hamilton's first two seasons in Anaheim after signing a five-year, $125 million contract have been a disappointment; some may call them a disaster, as he's hit .255 with 123 RBIs -- five fewer than he drove in during his final season with Texas. And the contract only gets worse: Hamilton made $15 million each of his first two seasons, gets bumped to $23 million this year and then $30 million in 2016 and 2017. Ouch.
He'll be 34 in May, has a bad shoulder and can't hit in Anaheim (.241/.299/.362 the past two seasons). His combined WAR the past two seasons has been 3.0 -- 1.5 each season. I see no signs that Hamilton is going to turn things around. While he's always been prone to chasing pitches out of the zone, his ability to make contact and do damage on those pitches has deteriorated in recent seasons. From 2009 to 2011, his overall swing-and-miss rate was 27.1 percent, and 39.7 percent on pitches out of the zone. Since 2012, his swing-and-miss rate has jumped to 34.8 percent, and a staggering 49.7 percent on pitches out of the zone. He got away with that poor approach in Texas, but as his natural skills have declined, he's now helpless against those pitches.
Pitchers know this, of course. Over the past two seasons, 309 batters have had at least 500 plate appearances. Hamilton is 308th in percentage of strikes seen. Only free-swinging Pablo Sandoval sees fewer pitches over the plate. Of those 309 batters, Hamilton is 299th in chase percentage. So he sees a lot of pitches out of the zone, and he swings at them. He's hit .157 against pitches out of the zone the past two seasons, which isn't the worst average in the majors, but helps explain why he's no longer a superstar. Once feared, Hamilton is now an easy out if pitchers can get ahead in the count.
The Angels have options in left field. Matt Joyce and Collin Cowgill make for a competent platoon, a pair that would be a good bet to equal Hamilton's expected rate of production. The doesn't mean Hamilton will ride the bench, not when he's making $23 million. Depending on his shoulder, Hamilton probably ends up as the regular left fielder or DH, with Joyce sliding to wherever Hamilton doesn't play. C.J. Cron likely stays in the lineup against left-handers as the platoon DH, and if he hits, he will earn more playing time. Maybe Cowgill fills in for Hamilton against some of the tougher lefties, essentially giving Scioscia platoons at both left field and DH.
So getting Hamilton back certainly helps the Angels' depth and flexibility, even if he is merely an expensive role player at this point in his career. He's not a bad player; he's just not a great one any longer. Angels fans will expect production commensurate with his salary, but that's not going to happen. As long as everyone realizes that, maybe Hamilton can have a quiet year in the shadow of Mike Trout as just another guy making $23 million and hitting 15 home runs.