Josh Hamilton chooses Angels, catches Rangers by surprise

The powers that be had spoken about still having a chance to re-sign Josh Hamilton as lunch was being served at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel.

That was around 12:30 p.m. Thursday at the annual Texas Rangers Media Holiday Luncheon, which came complete with turkey, dressing and apple cobbler.

But general manager Jon Daniels' phone started to buzz before he could get through the salad.

It was Hamilton's agent, calling to say that his client had just agreed to terms with division-rival Los Angeles.

Happy Holidays.

Hamilton, the 2010 American League MVP and a five-time All-Star in five seasons with the Rangers, will sign a five-year, $125 million contract with the Angels if he passes a physical exam today.

He leaves without giving the Rangers the final chance to match his best offer, something he said on multiple occasions that he would do. The Rangers were also expecting to have that chance.

They didn't get it -- a misunderstanding, apparently, that contributed to them losing out on one of the best players in the major leagues.

"I never expected that he was going to tell us to the dollar what they had," Daniels said. "It was our full expectation that the phone call was going to be before he signed, not after.

"Josh has done a lot for the organization. The organization has done a lot for Josh, a lot of things that aren't public. I'm a little disappointed with how it was handled, but he had a decision to make and he made it."

But there's no mistaking what is staring at the Rangers. They missed out on four off-season targets in a five-day span, and the possibility that they do nothing significant this off-season is now very real.

The first punch to land came Saturday, when free-agent right-hander Zack Greinke signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. A day later, trade target James Shields was dealt to Kansas City along with fellow righty Wade Davis.

On Tuesday, the chances that the Rangers would strike a deal with Arizona for right fielder Justin Upton were minimized when the Diamondbacks were involved in a three-team trade with Cleveland and Cincinnati that filled their need for a shortstop.

Now Hamilton, who the Rangers acquired from Cincinnati nearly five years ago to the day, has gone to an already-loaded Angels lineup.

"Nothing surprises you," Daniels said. "He's a tremendous talent, and they've shown that they're going to be in on the best players. They're better. They were a great team on paper beforehand. They're a great team on paper now. They're going to be very good."

The Rangers didn't go down without at least taking a swing at landing Hamilton, unlike what they did last year with left-hander C.J. Wilson before the Angels signed him for a five-year deal.

Daniels said that the Rangers talked framework and money with agent Mike Moye last week during the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., but also heard from Hamilton that maybe it was time for a change of scenery.

The sides continued to talk, with Daniels sensing progress. The Rangers were willing to pay a large annual salary, but the length of the contract could have been the sticking point.

"We had talked about a concept in Nashville," Daniels said. "It wasn't a final offer, but it was an idea of something we wanted to do. But we also indicated we would do something different. There were numbers. The deal he signed, there certainly is more guaranteed money."

In five seasons with the Rangers, Hamilton hit .305, swatted 142 homers and drove in 506 runs while winning the 2010 MVP award with a career-best .359 average, 32 homers and 100 RBIs.

He swatted 43 homers in 2012, including a four-homer game May 8 at Baltimore, and drove in 128 runs with a .285 average. But his hot start was tempered by a dreadful June and July, and over the final two weeks he developed an eye condition that hampered his play.

In his final two games with the Rangers, he dropped a key flyball as Oakland won the final game of the regular season to take the AL West title, and went 0-for-4 on eight pitches in the wild-card loss to Baltimore.

Hamilton also had two known relapses with alcohol, most recently in January, and he did not play in 163 games over his five seasons with the Rangers.

But there was far more good than bad on the field, and Hamilton will be missed.

"The feeling throughout the off-season has been that he would not come back," outfielder David Murphy said. "But I don't think you realize what a big piece of your team you're losing until you see him sign elsewhere and you feel that feeling in your stomach.”

The Rangers are now left with a thinned-out free-agent market, both in the outfield, at catcher and on the mound. Manager Ron Washington said that he expects the Rangers to be competitive, but also said to let the off-season and spring training play out before casting doom and gloom on his club.

Nick Swisher remains on the market as a switch-hitting outfielder with power, a high on-base percentage and the versatility to play first base. The Rangers, though, are believed to think that his price tag will be too high even though Swisher could help offset the potential losses of Murphy and Nelson Cruz to free agency next winter.

A.J. Pierzynski is the last of the everyday free-agent catchers, and his left-handed bat would serve the Rangers’ lineup well. But the Rangers might also find him too expensive.

Kyle Lohse rates as the best free-agent starter, with Anibal Sanchez reportedly choosing between Detroit and the Chicago Cubs. The Rangers, though, prefer a trade with the New York Mets for R.A. Dickey, the reigning National League Cy Young winner.

Then, there’s this: The Rangers could very well go with what they already have, with some top prospects sprinkled in.

“At the beginning of the off-season, we said this team was probably going to take on a different look in the sense that we have a good core and we wanted to mix in some young players,” Daniels said.

“We’re excited about these guys. We think they’ve earned the opportunity. We’ve never given anything to any of these guys, but we feel like they’ve earned it. We fully expect to be a very competitive club.”

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