Wednesday April 13th, 2011

Men who are 6'4" and 240 pounds with the power to crush a baseball from home plate to the horizon typically don't also have the speed to play centerfield in the major leagues, but the Rangers' Josh Hamilton mixes both with an on-field aggression that pushes the boundaries of what is physically possible on a baseball field.

Such a style of play works -- Hamilton, of course, won last year's American League MVP trophy after playing leading the majors in batting average (.359) and slugging percentage (.633), hitting 32 home runs and 100 RBIs and playing exceptional defense in leftfield and center -- but it also puts tremendous strain on his body.

No sooner had Hamilton legged out a first-inning RBI triple on Tuesday, diving into third just ahead of the tag, that third-base coach Dave Anderson sent him home when Adrian Beltre hit a foul pop-up and initially no Tiger covered the plate. Hamilton and Detroit catcher Victor Martinez both sprinted to the plate -- Hamilton had a head start but also had significantly farther to travel -- and dove at the same time, with Martinez's glove tagging Hamilton out.

As he walked off the field, Hamilton held his arms awkwardly low, seemingly bothered by the way he collided with the ground on his slide. He was removed from the game, spotted in a sling afterward and later discovered to have a small, non-displaced fracture of his upper humerus bone, an injury that will sideline him for six-to-eight weeks.

"The combination of size and athleticism does put him at risk," Texas general manager Jon Daniels said on a conference call.

Fortunately for the Rangers, who lost Tuesday's game in the ninth inning but still have baseball's best record at 9-2, they have David Murphy, who would be an everyday starter on several other teams. Murphy has a career .283/.344/.463 batting line while playing an increasing amount as a fourth outfielder, from 108 games in 2008 to 138 games in 2010. If his career statistics are projected over a 162-game schedule, he'd hit 18 home runs with 78 RBIs and would steal 12 bases.

The greater concern is that Rangers are having trouble keeping their franchise player on the field -- even though they've been trying. Ironically, the injury occurred in the first inning of the first game in which Hamilton served as the designated hitter, which was a decision intended to rest and protect Texas' superstar.

Daniels said he doesn't want Hamilton to change his style of play going forward. Nor should Hamilton change how he plays. But that doesn't mean the Rangers can't minimize the opportunities for him to get hurt once he returns from the D.L.

After all, Hamilton missed most of last September with bruised ribs and has suffered from one ailment after another since beginning his major league career in 2007. He has averaged only 117 games in his first four seasons and only once played more than 133. The club already has slowly been transitioning him away from centerfield, where he's responsible for covering more ground and thus more likely to dive for balls or crash into walls, and having him play more in the corner outfield positions.

What surely didn't sit well with the Rangers is that after today's game Hamilton called the foul tag-up that led to his injury "a stupid play" and added, "I definitely shouldn't have done it." He said he was following the orders of his third-base coach.

Daniels, who was scouting his organization's minor leaguers and only heard the play on the radio, gave his endorsement of the idea of the play but hadn't yet seen its execution.

"I liked the play," Daniels said. "It's an aggressive play. ... The injury is a separate issue than getting thrown out."

Daniels cited last year's ALDS Game 5 in which the Rangers scored their first three runs with daring baserunning. And he's right to encourage such a style. But maybe Hamilton needs to be handled differently.

Forget the Joba Rules; the Rangers need to adopt the Josh Rules.

Hamilton is already going to subject himself to bodily harm on a regular basis because, as he should, he plays the game hard and always at 100 percent effort. That, of course, is commendable. But there are ways to reduce Hamilton's ability to give it maximum effort.

The below are merely extensions of plans the club already has in place, but they should be strictly enforced.

• Play exclusively leftfield. The club has Julio Borbon for center, and when he needs a break, try Murphy there before Hamilton.

• Get more starts as the DH. He'll still go for the triple as he did on the ball he hit into the gap in Detroit, but he's less likely to crash into an outfield wall, which is how he hurt his ribs last year. And the beauty of the position's versatility is that Michael Young can still get at-bats in relief of the starting infielders which, of course, was the team's plan for him all along.

• Give Hamilton more days off. Barring a fluke injury during B.P., there's nothing safer than a spot on the dugout bench, every other week or so, especially during long stretches of consecutive games.

• Limit the aggressive baserunning that the team has control over. Hamilton won't -- and shouldn't -- stop himself from going first to third on a single or taking any other extra-base opportunity. But the Rangers can send him on fewer stolen-base attempts and fewer unorthodox tag-up plays, like Tuesday's, especially when it's the first inning of an April game in which Texas already has the lead.

• Prohibit Hamilton from sliding headfirst. It may not come easy, but too often dives with arms extended can lead to an injury, just as it did to Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal the previous night. Daniels did acknowledge that manager Ron Washington and first-base coach Gary Pettis already talk to the players about it.

All of these restrictions can and maybe should go out the window in playoff games or stretch-run contests that could determine whether the Rangers get to the postseason. But Texas needs to get to October first. It's a long season and Hamilton is too full of talent to not be in the lineup.

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