Josh Hamilton's Fascinating Free Agency Case

 

One of the great debates of the previous offseason was over how much Hamilton was going to net as a free agent. 

Hamilton's case is one of the most unique in the history of MLB free agency.  At his best, he is an overwhelming talent and perhaps the closest thing to a real-live version of The Natural that the game has ever seen.  On the other hand, he is also an injury-prone outfielder that has not played a full season since 2008 and lost four years of his early-20s to a crippling drug addiction.  A notable relapse back in January did little to ease concerns.

Understandably, the Texas Rangers decided early on that they would wait until after the 2012 season to negotiate a new contract.  That looked to be a poor decision early on; by the end of May, it looked like Josh Hamilton was going to have a contract-year for the ages.

Hamilton was simply raking during the season's first two months, racking up 21 homers, 57 RBI, and a 1.185 OPS while drawing comparisons to some of the greatest starts in the history of the game.  Things crested during the week of May 7th-13th, when Hamilton went 14-for-30 with 9 home runs and became the 16th player in MLB history to hit four home runs in one game.

At this point of the season, the only question people were wondering was how far Hamilton would finish above second place in the MVP voting.  A multiyear contract worth nine figures seemed like a foregone conclusion.

Unfortunately for Hamilton, it did not last.  Hamilton followed up his torrid start with the worst two-month stretch of his career, putting together a .754 OPS in June and then watching it sink to .605 for the month of July.  His power dried up as well, hitting only four home runs in each of the past two months.

Suddenly, Hamilton has gone from having arguably the most valuable season in MLB history to potentially not being worth his current $13.7 million salary by season's end.  The Rangers brass now looks like they made a smart decision by holding off on contract negotiations until the end of the season.

But has this slump killed any chance of Josh Hamilton earning a big-time contract?

A lot of it will depend on whether or not he can rediscover his bat over the season's final two months.  Nobody is debating whether he is capable of doing so - he has already come back from much worse things than a hitting slump - and Hamilton's problems do not appear to be injury-related.  Should he return to a level where he can maintain his current .941 OPS for the remainder of the season, a multi-year contract could still be in the works.

Don't expect an A-Rod or Pujols-type contract, though.  Hamilton turned 31 earlier this year, and MLB's track record for handing out big-time contracts to players in their 30s is less than impressive.  And while Hamilton possesses a skillset that has aged well historically, his four-year absence from the game makes it harder to judge how much wear-and-tear he has on his body.  Finally, the potential for relapse is also an unfortunate factor that must be addressed.

I fully expect Josh Hamilton to be offered a multi-year contract when he hits free agency.  Whether this contract is three years or six years depends on his play in August and September and the assurances he is willing to offer on his health.  But players of his talent do not come around very often, and some team will take a chance.

 

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