Josh Hamilton, the Natural, is easily the most beloved athlete in the state of Texas, and that is most certainly saying a lot. In a state where football is, was, and always will be king Josh Hamilton is more popular than any football player in the state.
As a former heroin addict, he's a symbol for overcoming adversity. He's an openly-Christian athlete; which goes down very well in a southern state like Texas. He also happens to be one of the most naturally-gifted people to ever play the game of baseball. His body, more brittle than it should be from years of doing hard drugs, is always the only question with Hamilton. He manages to get bad press when he has been caught drinking, but that is only ever a big deal because Josh Hamilton is someone we are supposed to look at as a role model. Charles Barkley once accurately noted that paid to be a role model; but when the story of the player precedes his production - which is to say people are drawn to him first for his background and second for his abilities - then the player inevitably becomes a role model. You better believes Hamilton is a role model in Texas.
He has yet to get seriously injured this season. If he somehow manages to play the entire season without catching the injury bug it will be the first time he has ever done it. It makes for perfect timing as well, because this is a contract year for Hamilton.
He has said that he wants to be paid "like an elite player", and while no one can possibly doubt his ability, any team that would guarantee him "elite" money in the Albert Pujols/Carl Crawford range would be making a decision as considerably bad as both of those deals made by Anaheim and Boston. Last year was a contract year for Pujols, and he responded by turning in the worst statistical calendar season of his otherwise Hall of Fame career. Angels owner Arte Moreno did not care about any of that and signed Pujols to one of the largest contracts in the history of professional sports. No one can honestly call the Pujols deal "smart" because it's not.
Deals are investments. A good general manager never has to dump a contract like you see on a near-daily basis leagues like the NBA. It is difficult to maneuver, but when a player is in his 30's and is demanding a deal for 7+ years you have to be able to rationalize it for the long term, especially considering that most modern baseball deals are back-loaded
Nolan Ryan has expressed much appreciation for Josh Hamilton. He loves the guy. So do Ranger fans far and wide. They love the guy. Announcers and columnists love the guy. Casey Affleck is preparing to direct a biopic of Hamilton. Hollywood even loves the guy.
Now, here's where it gets hairy.
Josh Hamilton wants the contract that he signs this winter to be the last contract he'll ever have to sign. That's what being paid "like an elite player" is all about. It's about job security, it's about need, it's about comfort, and it's of course about the money. With teams like the Angels, Red Sox, Yankees, and Marlins tossing around money to any top-tier free agents that it will stick to, it's hard to retain a guy like Hamilton for a price that makes sense.
Prince Fielder was the no. 2 free agent last winter and the Tigers signed him to his fat deal for reasons that had as much to do with his ability as they did with the fact that his father is somewhat of a quasi-legend of the Detroit Tigers. Fielder is overweight and has seen his numbers decline over the last few years. In fact, he is arguably the player that has been affected the most by the rise of this new pitcher's era. As of the publication of this article he is on pace for 29 home runs, which would be his lowest total since his rookie season. Home runs are supposed to be his specialty, but he garnered the paycheck he wanted simply by benefitting from a tight market. The real spenders - New York and Boston - already have overpaid guys at first base, so Prince most definitely missed out on what could have been an absurd deal.
Jon Daniels has been game-planning this scenario as sure as he was game-planning signing Yu Darvish seven whole years ago. He has the highest-rated prospect in the minors at Double-A Frisco, one Jurickson Profar, waiting to be called up for the stretch run. Profar could have been included in deals for either Zack Greinke or Josh Johnson but Daniels wasn't going to pull the lever on that and now the would-be superstar shortstop waits. If Daniels decides to re-sign Hamilton to the $150-200 million contract that he wants then he will likely let current shortstop Elvis Andrus (represented by Scott Boras) walk to another team and install Profar as the franchise shortstop. If Hamilton is not re-signed then Ian Kinsler will likely move to the outfield and Profar will play either second base or shortstop with Elvis Andrus.
Once again, the brilliant work of Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels has led to a seemingly-infinite stable of young talent coming up from the minors. They are in the position where they are likely going to lose one cornerstone of their offense and defense, but they will certainly have a worthy replacement to fill that hole if need-be.
I just don't see Jon Daniels committing that kind of money to a player who will be 32 by next year's All-Star break. Hamilton is somewhat of a quasi-legend himself. Even so far as Jon Daniels' own career, as acquiring Hamilton from the Cincinnati Reds was the very first brilliant move he made as general manager of Texas. Giving up starting pitcher Edinson Volquez for the risky former drug addict/former no. 1 overall pick defined Daniels' career, and decisions like that - including when he brought Colby Lewis back from Japan -- have come to define how the Texas Rangers approach the game of baseball.
Frankly, as much as I love Hamilton as a player, I don't think Daniels should pull the lever on a deal because someone... some team out there will sign him to an absurd contract. And, whoever does it will be doing it as much for his abilities as for his presence... what he means to the fans with very presence on the baseball field. And sometime she'll hit 4 home runs in a game. You know... the stuff of legend... Josh Hamilton is full of it. But is he worth anchoring the future of franchise? I don't think he is, and while Daniels and Nolan Ryan are no doubt enthusiastic about Hamilton, his suspension of contract talks until the season ends doesn't bode well for Texas' chances to re-sign him.
It echoes what Albert Pujols said to Cardinal management before last season; and if anyone still thinks that franchise brand identity survives need only look to Albert Pujols. Hell, it's the Cardinals; the third most-successful franchise in Major League history. And they were immediately coming off of their 11th World Series title.
Overpaying players is a trend that will never end. Someone will pay Josh Hamilton $200-or-so million dollars until he turns 40, it just won't be the Texas Rangers. That's not how Texas operates. That's not how Texas got to be the two-time reigning American League champions. He told Ranger fans a long time ago that he was building a framework to last, and that they would have to experience some bad years before that framework would properly materialize. Now that is has finally materialized Daniels plans to fulfill his plan, and it doesn't involve giving aging players too much money.
I would love to see him in a Cubs uniform, though... trotting the base paths of Wrigley. Who knows? Maybe Theo Epstein is looking to make a splash. Maybe take back the front page from Robin Ventura's south-side squad? That seems to be all it takes these days.
Either way, Josh Hamilton is going to get paid, and I'm happy for him. He deserves it, and whichever team pays him deserves him, and all of the pleasure and pain that comes with his legend.