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The Strike Zone

Should the Texas Rangers trade Josh Hamilton?

Josh Hamilton has been feeling the heat from his bosses during a summer-long slump. (Landov)

The trading deadline is now four days away, and the Rangers have yet to strike. Indeed, all eyes are on general manager Jon Daniels as he sizes up the market for ways to improve the two-time defending American League champions, who are tied with the Yankees for the league's best record at 59-39. Particularly with the loss of Colby Lewis to a torn flexor tendon and the uncertainty about Roy Oswalt's balky lower back, Daniels' primary focus is on a frontline starting pitcher to shore up his rotation, and while his lineup doesn't have any glaring holes, the team has scored just 3.44 runs per game this month en route to an 8-10 record. At the center of the sluggish offense is Josh Hamilton, who has admitted a lack of focus after being called out by both president/CEO Nolan Ryan and manager Ron Washington.

Here's a thought from leftfield regarding the star leftfielder (and occasional centerfielder): The Rangers should consider trading Hamilton. On the surface, the idea might seem outrageous, and perhaps even heartless, given the support network the team has worked hard to build in order to aid the slugger in his ongoing battle against substance abuse. But particularly at this time of year, reminders that baseball is a business are everywhere, with underperforming teams stripped for parts as they look to the future rather than wallow in the recent past. Hamilton, a pending free agent, rebuffed the Rangers' efforts to sign him to a contract extension earlier this season, and while he has expressed a desire to return, he presents a whole lot of risk. He's an elite hitter, at least when he's healthy and focused, but he is also 31 years old and physically fragile, averaging just 114 games per season from 2009-2011 while serving stints on the disabled list for an oblique strain, a sports hernia, lower back woes, broken ribs, and a broken humerus. Admittedly, some of those injuries are traumatic ones that aren't particularly likely to recur, but back and muscular problems don't disappear with age, particularly for players on the wrong side of 30.

Hamilton jumped out to a ridiculously hot start this year, hitting .368/.420/.764 with 21 homers through the end of May, including a record-tying four-homer game on May 8 in Baltimore. Those numbers not only gave him a leg up on winning his second AL MVP award, they pointed towards a rare opportunity for a freshly anointed MVP winner to hit the free agent market. Not since Barry Bonds became a free agent after the 1992 and 2001 seasons has that year's winner reached free agency, though one could also include Alex Rodriguez after he opted out in 2007, not that any team besides the Yankees could afford him.

Before Hamilton could clear his mantel for another trophy, he fell into a prolonged slump, hitting .223/.318/.436 with four home runs in June, and .154/.230/.308 with three homers — and just seven other hits — so far in July. The Rangers didn't suffer too badly in June; while their scoring dipped to 4.82 runs per game (down from 5.71 in the two months prior), they went 19-9. But now the offense has really hit the skids, and Hamilton has shown no signs of emerging, going 1-for-15 in his last four games, and 6-for-42 since the All-Star break. Ryan says his star is giving at-bats away by swinging at bad pitches and failing to work deep into counts. Indeed, his swinging strike rates in June (21.6 percent) and July (22.6 percent) both lead the majors, as does this month's out-of-zone swing rate of 50.9 percent. Hamilton, who has played in 90 of his team's 97 games, has admitted that he's "out of sorts mentally," and that his problems aren't physical.

While trading a player in the throes of a slump isn't ideal, Hamilton would instantly become the best bat on the market in terms of his overall 2012 production (.287/.356/.587 for a .315 True Average, 11th in the league), to say nothing of his track record (.306/.365/.548 career) or his upside. Even for a two-month rental, trading him would probably net a couple of top prospects, or a prospect and a usable stopgap outfielder. The Reds, for whom Hamilton played in 2007 (and for whom Hamilton's "accountability partner," Johnny Narron, worked), would be a good fit: they need a centerfielder (Drew Stubbs is struggling mightily). That said, their system was hit hard by the Mat Latos deal, and they're said to desire a right-handed bat given that their righties have hit just .245/.300/.391 this year. The Rays, who originally drafted Hamilton in 1999, could be another fit. Their offense has wheezed in the absence of Evan Longoria, they certainly have prospects that could be put towards the acquisition of a starting pitcher elsewhere, and could offer their own pending free agent outfielder, B.J. Upton, in return — or they could work out a blockbuster involving James Shields, whom the Rangers are said to be considering as an alternative to Zack Greinke.

Could the Rangers withstand Hamilton's loss? They hold a five-game lead over the Angels in the AL West, with the A's just 5 1/2 back as well. Their odds of making the playoffs stand at 99 percent according to Baseball Prospectus. Considering that they won the AL West in each of the past two seasons with Hamilton missing a total of 70 games, it's hardly an outrageous proposition. They would almost certainly need to add another outfielder to a mix that includes lefty David Murphy (.279/.374 /459, with only 36 plate appearances against southpaws), and righties Craig Gentry (a BABIP-driven .339/.398/.437) and Nelson Cruz (a disappointing .258/.320/.438). Add a player such as the Phillies' switch-hitting Shane Victorino (another pending free agent) or the righty-swinging Upton and the Rangers wouldn't tilt too heavily to one side, though the latter is actually struggling mightily against southpaws. Such a move would put pressure on Cruz, Mike Napoli (.232/.349/.438) and Michael Young (a dismal .270/.299/.346) to recover some semblance of their prior form, but all have long track records of hitting well, and barring injury are better bets to improve their current numbers than to slump even further.

Trading Hamilton isn't a necessity for the Rangers to reach the playoffs and make another run at a world championship, and it's probably something that has less than a 10 percent chance of happening as things currently stand. Admittedly, it would be a shocking move, one that might not be popular with a fan base that has supported Hamilton through thick and thin. The team receiving the slugger would assume no small risk given his admission regarding his current state of mind as well as his track record for finding trouble. But so would the Rangers, who would take on a much different look than the unit that that currently leads the league in scoring at 5.03 runs per game and that has used a good deal of brute offensive force to become an AL powerhouse. Trading Hamilton just might be the move that helps Texas get over the top, and if so, it would be something the fans could forgive. Free agents come and go, but flags fly forever.
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