One afternoon a few years ago, Josh Hamilton was sitting in the video room at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, talking about his return to baseball after a four-year hiatus. "I'm surprised that [my] body has done as well as it has, the way I treated it all those years, the hell I put it through," he told me. "I'm surprised that I haven't been hurt more than I have been. Hopefully I can play 150 [games] or so every season."
This was 2008, Hamilton's first year in Texas and second in the majors after the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft spent several years dealing with substance abuse off the field and injuries on it. He would play 156 games in '08 but hasn't reached 150 in a year since. His totals over the last three seasons: 89, 133, and 121.
What Hamilton said that afternoon four years ago seems particularly relevant now, as the Rangers front office faces what one pundit called The Most Difficult Contract Decision in the History of Baseball. The clock is ticking in Arlington: Hamilton, who's headed for free agency after the 2012 season, wants an extension done by the start of spring training, now less than a month away.
The fate of the most popular and arguably most talented player in Rangers history is the most compelling storyline remaining this offseason. If an extension doesn't get done in the next five weeks, the 2010 AL MVP will likely be the player to score baseball's next monster free agent contract a year from now. "With the deals that have been given out [this winter]," says an AL executive, "I shudder to think what [Hamilton] would get as a free agent, if he stays healthy and has another good year. He'd be the most coveted guy."
After they signed Yu Darvish on Jan. 18, the Rangers had a choice: they could have signed Prince Fielder or saved their pennies for a Hamilton extension. They had the resources to lock up one superstar, but not two. For a week it made for great water-cooler debate: would you rather have Fielder or Hamilton? The Prince or the Natural?
The Rangers might be better off with neither.
Fielder wasn't an realistic option for Texas once it was clear he wasn't going to settle for a five or six year deal. The Hamilton question is far more complicated. He's one of the most popular athletes in the Metroplex, beloved by the Rangers faithful, and is unquestionably one of the game's great talents, coming off a .298/.346/.536 season in which he had 25 home runs and 94 RBIs. But he is also 30, and riskier than your typical 30-year-old, given his history. Already he's showing signs that he'll age worse than other players his age.
"You wonder if the body will break down, and the way he plays, he's all out, all the time," says the AL executive. "That's one thing you kind of love about him, but it also scares you. He's a great talent but do you want to give him seven years and Carl Crawford money [$142 million]? Jayson Werth money [$126 million]? But as we've seen, there's always somebody out there probably willing to pay."
With a mega local TV deal about to kick in, the Rangers are flush with cash, but the Texas front office is one of the brightest in the game, and if Hamilton's asking price is higher than what they're comfortable with, they'll spend their money elsewhere. Maybe they'll save up for the slugging first baseman Joey Votto sweepstakes in 2013. Or make a run at pitchers Cole Hamels or Matt Cain when they become free agents next winter.
The two-time defending AL champs are still the team to beat in the American League, even without Fielder in the middle of their order. They were wise to pass on Fielder. And even with the slugger from Milwaukee headed to Motown, the Rangers may be wise to pass on Hamilton, too.