Josh Hamilton: Injuries and History Make for a Unique Free Agent

The Texas Rangers had a great season that ended in disappointment.  It would be easy to say the year itself was a disappointment because of how it ended, but that would minimize the success Texas had throughout almost the entire regular season.  They led the American League West from April until the final day of the regular season when the Oakland Athletics overtook them and forced them into the Wild Card slot.  In the one-game Wild Card playoff, Texas couldn't handle the red-hot Baltimore Orioles, and now the Rangers' season is over.  Now, everything that was to be put off until the offseason comes back.  Contract extensions, free agencies, trades, etc.  Of course, Josh Hamilton is at the forefront of all of it.

Hamilton is a free agent and recently said the chances of him returning to Texas were 50/50.  He is coming off a season in which he hit a career-high 43 home runs.  However, he is also coming off another season in which injuries nagged at him and he fell off the wagon again.  Hamilton still managed to play in 148 games this past season, but he was often playing hurt.  His all-out style of play lends itself to injury - so much so that the Rangers have used Hamilton in the corner outfield positions at times to limit the chances of injuring himself while playing center field.  Then, there are the demons.  Hamilton's history of drugs and alcohol abuse will always be a part of who he is, but this season it was magnified as he allowed himself to drink back in February.

Hamilton is incredibly talented and brings a lot to the Rangers, so they will not simply allow him to walk away.  The team and Hamilton had tried to negotiate a new contract earlier in the season, but Hamilton decided he would wait until after the season to talk about it any further.  If he decides to test the market, he will garner plenty of interest.

In each of Hamilton's five seasons with Texas he has been an All-Star.  He won the American League MVP in 2010, and he will likely get votes for the MVP again this season.  He has hit less than .285 just once in his career and is a lifetime .304/.363/.549 hitter.  In six seasons, Hamilton has amassed 161 home runs.  And to top it all off, he plays very good defense in the outfield.  Hamilton is the total package, but he's getting older and teams will have to put up with injuries and his history.

This season, Hamilton made $13.75 million.  It was a bargain for Texas who benefited from the fact that Hamilton started his career so late and was still in his arbitration-eligible years up until this season.  Hamilton will likely get a raise to somewhere close to $20 million per season.  He has averaged a little over four WAR per season in Texas (20.9 over five years).  Of course, this is inflated from his MVP year in which he was worth 8.4 wins.  Regardless, a player of that caliber will garner upwards of $20 million per season in free agency.  The question is, how many years will a team be willing to offer the 31-year-old Hamilton?

A team like the Los Angeles Dodgers may aggressively pursue Josh Hamilton because they have money to spend.  However, they will have to decide how many years to offer him.  It would be shocking to see any team give Hamilton a mega-contract like Prince Fielder's, Joey Votto's, or Albert Pujols'.  Such a long-term deal would just be too much risk, especially with Hamilton.  If Hamilton does not return to Texas, he will need to rebuild an entirely new support group around him to help him battle his demons.  That in and of itself could be disastrous.  Then, there's the injury concerns.  With baseball's guaranteed contracts and Hamilton's propensity for injury, a contract longer than five years is probably too risky.

Hamilton will likely want a deal that is longer than five years, but it would be surprising to see him get it.  Five years, $100 million seems like the type of deal he could get based on his history.  Perhaps it will be with Texas, or maybe we'll see Hamilton playing for some other team.  No matter where he ends up, the negotiation and Hamilton's free agency as a whole is unique because of his circumstances. But his talent can't be denied.

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