On Wednesday, Josh Hamilton reached 30 homers for the third time in his six-year career, helping the Rangers to a 10-9 win over the Red Sox that stretched their lead in the American League West to 5½ games. Hamilton, who made history earlier this year by hitting four of those homers in one game, leads the AL in runs batted in and is among the leaders in homers, slugging average and OPS. Notoriously fragile, he's yet to visit the DL this season and is on his way to his second-highest total of games played and plate appearances.
It's a heck of a launch year. Hamilton, the top pick in the 1999 draft who lost three years of his career to drug and alcohol abuse and didn't reach the majors until age 26, is set to hit the free market for the first time this winter. He may be the most complicated, fascinating, dangerous free agent in baseball history. Supremely talented, Hamilton has at times been the best player in baseball, a package of natural hitting ability and raw power whose highlight reel can stretch for days. At the same time, Hamilton has just one full, healthy and effective season on his resume (injury data courtesy of Baseball Prospectus):
2007: His rookie season with the Reds is interrupted by two DL stints (gastroenteritis and a sprained wrist), and ended early by a hamstring strain. Hamilton plays just 90 games.
2008: Hamilton's one full season to date (156 games) includes a historic performance in the Home Run Derby.
2009: His worst year in the majors includes two DL stints, one to repair a sport hernia, and career lows in all three rate stats as well as homers and games played.
2010: Even in winning the AL MVP, Hamilton misses the final month of the regular season after breaking his ribs.
2011: Hamilton fractures his arm on a diving play at home plate in April, costing him more than a month of playing time.
2012: After getting off to a start that draws comparisons to the greatest seasons in the game's history, Hamilton dives into a two-month slump in which he hits .202/.288/.399 in June and July, a stretch possibly triggered by his attempts to quit chewing tobacco.
It's always something with Hamilton. While a few of his major injuries are traumatic, as in 2010 and 2011, what isn't shown here is that he's also had regular problems with strains and pulls that have cost him playing time and effectiveness. He's had two surgeries to repair a sports hernia; he's had bouts of illness, including an intestinal problem this past June. Hamilton had missed more than 40 games a season in his first five campaigns during what should have been his peak.
That's the scary statistic for a team staring at offering Hamilton, who will be in his age-32 season in 2013, a long-term deal at $20 million a season or more. Hamilton was fragile in his late 20s; what is he going to be like as he ages? Hamilton is part of a class -- high-end thirtysomething corner outfielders -- that has proven to be a complete and utter disaster in the free-agent market. Carl Crawford. Alfonso Soriano. Jayson Werth. Carlos Lee. Jason Bay. Many of the biggest busts in free-agent history are in this group, and while there are successes (Manny Ramirez and Matt Holliday, pretty much), it's not a class of stock that generally rises in value.
Hamilton is going to be the top position-player free agent on the market this winter, a slot that has proven to be lucrative in recent years for the likes of Crawford (seven years, $142 million) and Werth (seven years, $126 million). Just this past offseason, Albert Pujols signed a 10-year, $240-million contract and was joined by Prince Fielder (nine years, $214 million) in breaking the $200-million mark. With a flood of local TV money coming into the game, new rules limiting what teams can spend to acquire amateur talent, and new ownership groups in Los Angeles and San Diego, the price for free-agent talent is on the rise -- risk profiles be damned.
At Hamilton's May peak, coming off the four-homer game and on pace to challenge Barry Bonds' single-season home-run record, the sky seemed to be the limit: six years at $25 million a year was assumed to be the buy-in, and there was speculation that a bidding war could push the total value on a contract up near that $200-million threshold. The last two months have tempered that a bit, serving to remind everyone that Hamilton is a much different free agent, one whose performance has bounced around, one who comes with baggage.
While Hamilton is still going to get paid, the bidding for him could be lowered by these factors; the top end of the range for free agents, the 10-year deals and the $25 million AAV, may be out of his range. The Crawford and Werth contracts seem more like what Hamilton will command.
Hovering over this discussion are the special circumstances of Hamilton's life. He has been open about his struggles in overcoming crack addiction, and by all accounts, he hasn't slipped back into drug abuse. However, there have been noteworthy incidents in both 2009 and 2012 in which Hamilton relapsed into drinking alcohol, as well as this summer's apparent battle with tobacco. It's certainly indelicate to point these things out, but you can be assured that any team considering an investment of $120 million or more in Hamilton is having this conversation.
Even projecting Hamilton as clean and sober from this day forward doesn't completely allow you to escape his past. Look at his history of injury and illness from ages 26 to 31. The great unknown is the lingering impact of how Hamilton spent his early 20s, abusing drugs rather than training. What are the long-term effects in his body that could render an nine-figure investment a disaster? Healthy outfielders who didn't come with these questions have hit the market, signed huge deals and fallen off a cliff; take that risk profile and add a history of drug abuse, a handful of alcohol relapses and 40 missed games a year at the player's peak, and you get Hamilton.
And yet . . . there's a 40-homer pace. There's the effortless power. There's a career line of .305/.364/.547. There's one of the strongest arms in the game. To watch Hamilton on a bright day at Fenway park, crushing a triple into the triangle, launching a long, arcing homer into the rightfield grandstand, is to see baseball the way only a small number of people can play it. Hamilton won an MVP award spotting the league a month, and he hit four homers in a game, and he put the Home Run Derby on tilt. Someone is going to pay more than $100 million for that Josh Hamilton, and hold their breath every day for the rest of the decade.