Josh Hamilton's tenure with the Angels is over, as the one-time MVP is reportedly headed back to Texas. Can a compassionate Rangers organization help Hamilton get his life and career back on track?
Josh Hamilton has indeed played his last game for the Angels. The former AL MVP, currently working his way back from off-season shoulder surgery as well as a self-reported relapse involving cocaine and alcohol, is reportedly on the verge of being traded back to the Rangers, for whom he starred from 2008 to '12 before departing via free agency. The Halos, still reeling from an arbitrator's verdict that Hamilton could not be suspended under the Joint Drug Agreement, will pay around $68 million of the $80.2 million remaining on his contract, according to the Dallas Morning News, with Hamilton relinquishing around $6 million to offset the state of Texas's lack of an income tax, leaving the Rangers' share a little more than $6 million.
UPDATE: The trade is now official, with Texas acquiring Hamilton from Los Angeles in exchange for a player to be named later or cash considerations.
The added complexity regarding those financial aspects is the main holdup in the deal, as the league and the union will scrutinize it. It may not be finalized for another couple of days. Hamilton will gain an opt-out clause after 2016 as a benefit to allow the restructuring, though it seems quite unlikely he would pass up the $30 million salary scheduled for the final year of his deal.
Eating $68 million to make Hamilton go away is a marked departure from Angels owner Arte Moreno's recent public statement suggesting that the team could challenge the slugger's ability to collect the full amount of his contract. Assuming that the deal is completed more or less as reported, this is a victory not only for the troubled 33-year-old slugger but for the players’ union, and it could pay big dividends for the Rangers, a team that did a much better job of building a support network for Hamilton than its division rival did. When it's all said and done, the Angels will have paid quite a price: roughly $110 million for their two years of Hamilton.
Before he could rejoin the team in spring training, reports emerged in late February that Hamilton had suffered a relapse in his sobriety involving cocaine and alcohol, and could thus face disciplinary action. The complexity of his case, which included a self-report of his relapse rather than a failed drug test, as well as a disagreement between MLB and the players' union over whether he was a first-time or repeat offender in the eyes of the JDA, led to a deadlocked four-member panel attempting to determine whether Hamilton violated the agreement. On April 3, arbitrator Roberta Golick ruled that Hamilton did not, and thus could not be suspended.
In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, commissioner Rob Manfred released a statement disagreeing with the decision and promising to “seek to address deficiencies in the manner in which drugs of abuse are addressed under the program in the collective bargaining process.” He did not, however, address the breach of confidentiality that allowed the general public to find out information that should only have been made public if Hamilton was suspended. Manfred declined to launch an investigation into the source of the leaks regarding the disciplinary proceedings, which stood to benefit the Angels financially because Hamilton would be suspended without pay, forfeiting some portion of his $23 million salary.
Additionally, team president John Carpino and general manager Jerry Dipoto issued statements that expressed their displeasure, suggesting the team was less concerned with Hamilton's well-being than with punishment. “It defies logic that Josh's reported behavior is not a violation of his current program,” said Carpino. The Angels “have serious concerns about Josh's conduct, health and behavior, and we are disappointed that he has broken an important commitment, which he made to himself, his family, his teammates and our fans,” said Dipoto. Team player representative C.J. Wilson, who also played with Hamilton in Texas, openly criticized the Angels' response, calling it “kind of disheartening” and questioning the team's motivations.
Asked by reporters a week later whether Hamilton would return to the team, Moreno responded, “I will not say that.” He claimed that that the team could enforce unique language in Hamilton's contract protecting the Angels in the event of a relapse, an assertion that the Major League Baseball Player's Association emphatically challenged shortly after the owner's words were reported. Earlier on Friday, Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann backed the MLBPA's assertion, pointing out the historical lack of success that teams have had in attempting to void guaranteed contracts, and that the protections in the JDA bar a player from receiving additional discipline at the hands of his team. McCann also cited an industry source saying that Hamilton may never play for the Angels again.
Hamilton has been rehabilitating his injury in Houston instead of with the Angels, who did not issue him a locker in spring training. On Tuesday, manager Mike Scioscia told reporters that Hamilton would report to the team's training complex in Arizona this week, but Dipoto refuted that schedule. Assuming the trade goes through, Hamilton will likely need 2-3 weeks in extended spring training before he heads out on a minor league rehab assignment and then rejoins the Rangers and resumes what has been a tumultuous career.
The No. 1 pick of the 1999 draft by the Devil Rays out of a Raleigh, N.C., high school, Hamilton began battling drug and alcohol problems in the wake of a February 2001 car accident that caused lingering back pain and took him away from the diamond. Multiple failed drug tests and suspensions kept him from playing a single minor league game from 2003-2005, and he played just 15 in Low Class A after being reinstated in 2006. That winter, the Devil Rays left him off their 40-man roster, and he was chosen in the Rule 5 draft by the Cubs, who immediately traded him to the Reds. As a 26-year-old rookie in 2007, Hamilton finally began showing the promise that made him the top pick, hitting .292/.368/.554 with 18 homers in 90 games.
Streaky and injury-prone, Hamilton couldn't match those numbers in 2011 as he missed nearly six weeks with a broken humerus, but he did help the Rangers to another pennant, and his two-run 10th-inning homer in Game 6 of the World Series against the Cardinals put them in a position to clinch their first championship, though their bullpen couldn’t hold the lead. He bashed a career-high 43 homers in 2012, including four in one game on May 8 against the Orioles, and 21 by the end of May, but he wound up greasing the skids for his exit over the remainder of the season. He fell into a prolonged slump in June and July (during which he conceded he was “out of sorts mentally”), battled sinus problems and blurred vision in September (missing five games due to overconsumption of caffeine and energy drinks), struck out in 18 of 44 plate appearances upon returning and dropped a routine fly ball in Game 162 as the A's snatched the AL West title away from the Rangers, who were forced to settle for a wild-card berth. After going 0 for 4 in the team's wild-card loss to the Orioles, he made for an easy scapegoat, lessening the sting of his defection to the team's division rival on a five-year, $125 million contract.
Given that Hamilton had already experienced a pair of very public relapses with alcohol (one in August 2009, the other in February 2012), the Angels had to know what they were getting when they signed Hamilton: a supremely talented player but a physically and mentally fragile one as well. They promised to give him the support that he needed and hired an accountability partner to accompany him off the field, similar to an arrangement he had in Texas. Notably, Moreno said at the time that the contract had no special provisions regarding a relapse.
While Hamilton's overall numbers took a dip away from the hitter-friendly environment of Texas, it's worth noting that he hit far better away from Anaheim (.268/.331/.483 with 22 homers in 535 PA) than at home (.241/.299/.362 with nine homers in 482 PA). Anything approximating that road performance will help the Rangers, who are hitting just .215/.299/.344 thus far while going 6-10 and, as with last year, enduring a litany of injuries, most notably losing Yu Darvish for the season.
Once he's healthy, Hamilton will presumably see time in leftfield and at DH. Rangers leftfielders—including Shin-Soo Choo, who has since shifted back to rightfield—combined to hit .217/.301/.331 last year, for the league's third-lowest OPS at the spot. The four players who have appeared there for the team this year (Jake Smolinski, Ryan Rua, Carlos Peguero and Delino DeShields Jr.) have been even worse, “hitting” a combined .173/.306/.288 thus far.
Hamilton alone isn’t likely to turn around the Rangers’ fortunes. But freed from an organization that demonstrated it could no longer support him by failing to show compassion when he needed it the most, and back in the fold with a different organization that has shown that it can, the odds of him improving his own fortunes appear to be higher. Here’s hoping he can get back to the field and resume his career in short order.