Let's just begin by establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that baseball general managers are conniving, self-serving liars. Here's Jerry Dipoto, pretty much right before his organization signed the biggest free agent of the year:
GM Jerry Dipoto on whether #Angels will make any more major moves: "I don't feel like anything else is imminent, pressing or required."— Mike DiGiovanna (@MikeDiGiovanna) December 12, 2012
December 12: "I don't feel like anything else is imminent"
December 13: Angels sign Josh Hamilton for five guaranteed years
December 14: we all go back to believing general managers again
And remember this from Jack Zduriencik one Friday night in the middle of November? Zduriencik didn't outright reject the premise that the Mariners could be interested in pursuing Hamilton, but he implied the M's wouldn't be major players unless Hamilton's price came way down. He spoke of Hamilton the way he spoke of Prince Fielder a year ago. Okay, so, the Mariners wouldn't be major players for Josh Hamilton, unless of course it turns out they were allegedly exactly that.
For what it’s worth, I’m hearing now the Mariners indeed were in hard on the pursuit of Josh Hamilton and had strong hopes of landing the slugger before he chose the Angels today. (Greg Johns)
"We were very competitive and made a substantial offer in terms of years and dollars," Zduriencik said. "At the end, the player has a decision to make, and he made his decision. Obviously it's in our division and that makes it tough, but again, I think we were aggressive, we were out in front of it. Signing with them caught a lot of people by surprise." (Greg Johns again)
Of course, since we just established that all general managers are liars, Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners could be lying again, about how hard they tried. It works in the Mariners' best interests for the perception to be out there that they gave Hamilton their best, still-responsible shot. There could conceivably be an agenda here, but Johns isn't the only person I've heard from talking about this, and Zduriencik does have a track record of working in secrecy. I think it's more likely than not that what we see here is the truth. That the Mariners went super hard after Josh Hamilton, but he still selected the Angels in the end, to the surprise of many, the Mariners and Rangers included.
So, let's go with that. Clearly, Zduriencik would've been trying to accomplish something with his statements downplaying interest a month ago. Clearly, the Mariners had significant interest in landing Hamilton's bat, and they very nearly did it. Think about the popular complaints, then. Hamilton signing with the Angels sent a lot of Mariners fans into an inconsolable tizzy, as they lamented the result of the sweepstakes. Their primary complaints: Zduriencik won't bring in a big bat, and ownership won't spend enough on the roster.
But it seems like Zduriencik tried hard to bring in a big bat -- harder than he tried to bring in Fielder. And ownership was right there with him, giving him the green light to proceed aggressively. This wasn't Zduriencik shying away from risk, or ownership shying away from making a real on-field investment -- this was just a free agent choosing one team over others. Only one team can sign any given free agent.
To a certain extent, then, I think the front office deserves more credit than it's getting, if you agree that Hamilton is a potentially helpful piece of interest. The front office didn't whiff. They lost out. This is sort of like the opposite of when the Bill Bavasi front office offered a massive guarantee to free-agent starter Barry Zito. Zito wound up choosing the Giants, but what we know about that process informs us about Bavasi and what he was trying to do. Just because that move didn't get made doesn't mean we can't pass judgment on Bavasi because of it. That looked like a nightmare at the time, and it's worked out like a nightmare in reality. World Series championships be damned.
The Mariners tried as hard as they thought they ought to, given who Hamilton is, and given his talents and risks. It seems like only the Angels were willing to guarantee him half a decade, which presumably put them over the top. Guaranteed years are better for a player than vesting options, even if the player strongly believes in himself. Remember that the Rangers know Hamilton best, and they have a need, and they stopped well short of the winning bid. There's a lesson here, and it's that you can't force a fit. Just because you badly want a player doesn't mean you'll end up with that player. Not, at least, if you attempt to do things responsibly. Every player has a price but that doesn't mean you should always meet it.
Compare the Mariners' situation to the Angels' situation. The Angels haven't made the playoffs in a few years, but the Mariners haven't made the playoffs in many more years, and the Angels have been more competitive. The Angels are better, and they draw better, and they get more financial support from ownership. They play in southern California, even if that particular part of southern California is Anaheim. All things being equal, almost anyone would choose the Angels over the Mariners, and I don't think things were even equal. The Angels appear to have offered the largest guarantee. The Mariners were close, but their only hope would've been overpaying, using money as a lure.
Maybe you think they should've overpaid. Maybe you think they can't keep avoiding big risks. But consider the word "overpay". It's irresponsibility by definition. It would make some sense to overpay if you thought you were adding that one last piece to get over the top, but Hamilton isn't that piece right now, and the Angels are better able to absorb a contract like this than the Mariners are, especially if Hamilton goes south. To wish that the Mariners would've overpaid is to wish that the Mariners would've done something hugely irresponsible, and that's not what we should want for the Mariners to do. The Angels traded for Vernon Wells out of desperation. Vernon Wells is, presently, the Angels' fifth outfielder. Obviously he's not holding them back to a significant degree, but the Mariners don't have Arte Moreno or the Angels' TV contract, yet.
You want the Mariners to have overpaid because you're sick of the Mariners being bad. The Mariners wound up bad in the first place because they were irresponsible. Overpaying would feel like a win now and quite probably a loss later on. It's always about the overall picture, and is Josh Hamilton the guy you want to hitch your wagon to? That Josh Hamilton, the one who's 31, the one who's fragile, the one who's a recovering drug addict, the one who suddenly developed Cust-ian whiff rates? The one who's taken considerable advantage of hitting in Texas and, earlier, Cincinnati? Is this really the guy?
I get that the frustration isn't only about missing out on Josh Hamilton. The root issue is much larger than that. But the Mariners are trying. They tried for Josh Hamilton, after all -- they just couldn't beat the overall appeal of the Angels. Teams can't just force things to happen. I mean, they can, but a forced transaction is often an irresponsible transaction. Irresponsibility doesn't cripple a franchise as long as it's limited in scope, but it should never be something to root for.