Back in 2011, Mike Napoli was Mike Piazza. He was the closest we've come since the real thing, at least -- a .600-slugging catcher who wasn't going to make anyone think he was Mike Matheny behind the plate. He was a force in the middle of the Rangers' lineup, fueling a lineup that would repeat as American League champions.
There must have been an awful lot of pressure to sign him to a big contract, even if the Rangers had a sneaking suspicion that the season wasn't going to be repeated.
Back in May, Josh Hamilton was effortlessly dominating. Opposing pitchers would throw up on the mound just at the sight of him, and then they would chuck the ball over the fence themselves to save time. If Napoli was fuel for the second pennant-winner, Hamilton was the chassis and engine. He was taking the team places it hadn't been in its 50-year existence.
There must have been an awful lot of pressure to sign him to a big contract, even if the Rangers had a sneaking suspicion that he wasn't going to age well.
It's December, 2012. Whatever contract Napoli would have received after 2011 would look silly right now. Whatever contract Hamilton would have received around the All-Star Break would look silly. By virtue of being patient, the Rangers avoided some dubious contracts, and now they have a whole lot of flexibility for the offseason.
And that's the end of that.
Except, wait a sec, check out the Rangers' lineup right now. That's Nelson Cruz hitting cleanup, which I guess could be worse. David Murphy hitting fifth is a little quirky, but that's nothing compared to Michael Young hitting sixth. He might not even be on the team by the time this is published, which probably means Mike Olt is the guy. Then there's Mitch Moreland, Geovany Soto … huh.
It's early in the offseason. The Rangers are sweet on Justin Upton, and they're looking at Zack Greinke. They have moves to make, and they'll make them. They probably aren't going into the season with Murphy hitting fifth. Don't mistake this for a Rangers-r-dun post. And please don't mistake it for a Rangers-should-of-signed-Napoli-and-Hamilton screed, either. The Rangers were smart to wait the market out, showing a patience that a lot of teams don't have.
But this is a great example of an often overlooked point: Overpaying players usually isn't a black-and-white, binary thing. There aren't good deals and bad deals, and never the twain shall meet. If the Rangers can't swing a trade for Justin Upton or another bat, they'll be a worse team in 2013. Possibly even a substantially worse team. If they cave and give up Elvis Andrus in a deal for Upton, they might not be a worse team right away, but they'll have cashed in on one of the better trade chips in baseball, and they'll have done it to get a player who might not be an upgrade from the outfielder they're losing.
Awful, short-sighted contracts don't always reveal their true, ugly nature right away. There's usually a honeymoon period where everything's a-ok. Take the worst contract in baseball right now, Alex Rodriguez. He signed it after the 2007 season, and for two years, it wasn't the worst deal in history. He was nicked up at times, but the Yankees won a World Series with him in the lineup. A-Rod was still a ridiculously valuable player, even if he was making ridiculously ridiculous money.
Then there was unpleasantness. Hilarious, delightful unpleasantness.
But the Yankees don't have to give those years back. They're just paying for it now in their search for a new catcher and third baseman. And that's the most extreme example possible. Hamilton was never going to sign for 10 years, and neither was Napoli, so the risk was lower. The reward might have the same thing: a shiny, shiny trophy. There's a short-term benefit to horrible deals. Fried chicken will kill you eventually, but danged if doesn't seem like a gift from the gods as it's sliding down your gullet.
There's a chance the Rangers won't be as good of a team in 2013 because they're smart. In 2015, they won't have a horrific albatross of a contract tying up a large chunk of their payroll … but who in the heck knows what the Rangers will be like in 2015? Maybe Profar goes the way of Brandon Wood, and maybe every one of their young pitchers gets sucked into the Orioles Zone.
Or maybe they have a completely dynamite team in 2015, and it's a young, cheap roster that could still use a declining Hamilton -- think of something like the Giants' rotation and Zito's fluctuating contributions over the years. No one knows what the Rangers will or will not need.
Long post short: There's a chance the Rangers won't be as good of a team in 2013 because they're smart. It's weird to think about it like that. But they have a lot of work to do if they want to keep the lineup as good as it was last year, and they got in that spot by being patient and reasonable.