On Friday, the Rangers season ended, as the team fell to the Baltimore Orioles in the AL Wild Card play-in game. Josh Hamilton, in what will quite possibly be his final at-bat as a Texas Ranger, was booed by the home crowd. From an outside perspective, a break-up seems inevitable. The Rangers — and their fans — seem to just be tired of the Josh Hamilton Experience.
On one hand, the frustration is understandable. Back in May, I wrote a piece noting that Hamilton’s combination of approach and success were historically unique. That he was destroying opposing pitchers while showing the plate discipline of a three-year-old was fascinating. Then opposing pitchers adjusted, they simply stopped him throwing him anything near the plate, and Hamilton went into an epic two month slump. In August, Hamilton rebounded a bit, and he and his coaches both suggested that he’d made the necessary changes to his approach, even though the evidence suggested otherwise.
Not surprisingly, the success didn’t last, and any notion that Hamilton had made any strides with his pitch selection issues were dashed in the final month of the year, as his monthly totals illustrate:
In the final four months of the season, Hamilton struck out 123 times in 429 trips to the plate, a strikeout rate of 28.7%. During that stretch, he hit .245/.322/.487. For comparison, Alfonso Soriano hit .262/.322/.499 this year and only struck out in 24.9% of his plate appearances. While Hamilton blew Soriano away in April and May, the lasting memory of Josh Hamilton to Rangers fans is a four month stretch of baseball where Hamilton was basically Alfonso Soriano. No wonder they’re not banging down the doors to sign up for another five years of that.
And yet, April and May happened too. We can’t just ignore that for the first two months of the season, Hamilton hit .368./.420/.764 and was the best player on the planet. He was the same aggressive swing-at-anything guy then that he’s always been, but he managed to keep his strikeout rate down to just 18.8% and launch 21 homers in 47 games. It obviously wasn’t sustainable, but then again, neither was his July collapse. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.
And, judged as a whole, Hamilton’s season was actually quite good. He played in 148 games and racked up 636 plate appearances, answering some questions about whether he was too fragile to be an everyday player. In those 148 games, he produced +4.4 WAR, his third straight season posting a +4 win season or better. His 139 wRC+ was slightly higher than his career mark of 135. Even heading into his age-32 season, it’s hard to project him as worse than a +4 win player, and there aren’t a lot of +4 win players just hanging around free agency this year.
Just based on straight production, he’s probably in line for $20-$25 million per year, depending on the length of the deal offered. But, perhaps no premium free agent in recent history came with as many question marks as Hamilton does.
Can he get his strikeout rate back down with his current approach at the plate? Can he learn to stop swinging at pitches two feet off the plate? Is his body up to staying in the outfield, or does he project as a first baseman after another year or two? Do you want to guarantee years beyond age 35 for a guy with a history of addiction?
Hamilton makes Jose Reyes look like a rock of stability, and Reyes had to settle for just $17 million per year even after having a +6 win season at age 28. And, by all accounts, the Mets actually wanted Reyes back. It’s not clear that the Rangers actually do want Hamilton back, given his second half fade and the issues that go along with having him as the foundation of their line-up. And so, it seems like Texas is going to let him see what the market will bear, then decide whether they want to give him a similar deal in order to keep him around. This is the strategy they employed with C.J. Wilson last year, and of course, he ended up in Anaheim.
But, it also seems possible that Josh Hamilton’s market may never develop. This feels a little reminiscent of Andruw Jones after the 2007 season, where Atlanta just tired of his weight gain and underperformance — and he eventually settled for 2/40 from the Dodgers after teams decided that the risks weren’t worth the reward. Jones’ 85 wRC+ that year also had something to do with it, of course, and Hamilton will certainly do better than 2/40, but how much better is something of an open question. His track record and age suggest that a long term deal is probably not a great idea, so even an aggressive suitor is probably going to top out at five years, and there very well may not be an aggressive suitor for Josh Hamilton this winter. The Yankees don’t seem to need him. The Red Sox seem unlikely to take a big bet on another potentially unlikeable player with a big contract. The Dodgers outfield is full. Unless the Tigers fall short in the playoffs and decide to pony up for one more big bat to take a run at a title, it’s hard to find too many situations where a team will be motivated to offer Hamilton a huge contract.
And, if he’s sitting on the market in January without any real options, the Rangers could potentially be his best landing spot. Which, again, brings up the question of whether they even want him back.
I could see Hamilton getting 5/125 from a team that decides to just ignore the risk and land the best offensive player on the market this winter. I could see Hamilton remaining a free agent until January before signing a one year deal somewhere to try and prove that his second half wasn’t a sign of things to come. Like with Hamilton on the field, his free agent outcomes cover the entire spectrum of possibilities. Perhaps that’s only fitting for a guy who and can end a 43-home-run season being booed by his home crowd.