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Josh Hamilton’s 2016 season has ended before it began. The Rangers announced on Monday that Hamilton, who has spent the entire season to this point on the disabled list attempting to rehabilitate from off-season surgery on his left knee, will undergo yet another operation on the knee on June 8 to repair damage to the meniscus and possibly cartilage and will miss the remainder of the season. This will be the third time that Hamilton has had left knee surgery in a 10-month span dating back to last September. His inability to return to action combined with his age—he turned 35 on Saturday—and declining production raises the question as to whether this latest setback could prove to be career-ending for the supremely talented but often troubled star.
Hamilton’s issues with his left knee began last August, when he started to experience soreness in the joint. He had relatively minor cleanup surgery on Sept. 11, in which part of the meniscus was removed, and he was back in action a week later, slugging .500 down the stretch for the Rangers as they held off the Astros and Angels to win the American League West title. He reinjured the knee in a collision with the outfield wall soon after his return, however, then struggled in the Division Series (going 3 for 18) and found himself going back under the knife after Texas' season ended. His recovery from that second surgery was much slower and included stem cell and platelet-rich plasma injections in February. After opening the season on the DL, Hamilton began a minor league rehab assignment on April 30, but he came out of his first game with further soreness in the knee, prompting the consultations that led to his upcoming surgery.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said on Monday that Hamilton is committed to returning to the majors in 2017. It remains to be seen if the team will have room for him on its roster, however, or if any other team will be interested in taking a chance on Hamilton in his age-36 season.
Ironically, Texas could use Hamilton now. On Monday, the club also announced that it had placed rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo back on the disabled list with a strained hamstring that he suffered in his first game back from a calf strain that had sidelined him in the fifth game of the season. The Rangers also placed backup outfielder Drew Stubbs on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained toe. Those two injuries come just 10 days after Opening Day centerfielder Delino DeShields was optioned to Triple A following a poor start to his season (.217/.294/.302, 61 OPS+ and just 4 of 7 on stolen base attempts).
Texas, which trails the first-place Mariners by just 1 1/2 games entering Tuesday's action, has weathered those losses thanks to strong starts from free-agent addition Ian Desmond (.276/.333/.459, 110 OPS+) and 21-year-old rookie Nomar Mazara. Desmond has not only made a smooth transition from shortstop to the outfield but has also proven to be a viable everyday centerfielder. Mazara, who was called up to replace Choo after the latter’s initial injury, has hit .303/.348/.451 (113 OPS+) and provided above-average defense in rightfield. Desmond and Mazara can continue to man center and right, respectively, but the series of injuries leaves a hole in Hamilton's familiar spot in left.
To take Choo's and Stubbs’s places on the roster, the Rangers called up two players: slugging third base prospect Joey Gallo, who has played more leftfield than third base in the majors due to the presence of Adrian Beltre; and 27-year-old centerfielder Jared Hoying, who was off to a hot start for Triple A Round Rock. Both will either compete with default incumbent Ryan Rua, or they could be used in a platoon with the righthanded Rua, since both of the newcomers are lefthanded hitters.
Looking ahead to next year, Desmond, who signed a pillow contract with Texas on Feb. 29, will be a free agent in November. Even if he leaves, Hamilton will not be in an option in center because of his decreased mobility, which one expects will not be dramatically improved by his latest surgery. The outfield corners, meanwhile, are spoken for, with Choo signed through 2020 and Mazara under team control through at least '21. Beltre is signed through '18, which will keep third base occupied and likely force Gallo to replace impending free agent Mitch Moreland at first base. Prince Fielder, meanwhile, has designated hitter locked up through '20. So even though there's no clear spot for him in the everyday lineup, there’s no harm in the Rangers bringing Hamilton (who still has one year left on his contract) to camp to see if he can fill a role as a lefthanded bat off the bench. With Mazara, Choo, Gallo and Fielder all lefthanded, however, Texas might be better off with a righty-hitting fourth outfielder.
The Angels are still paying all but about $2 million of Hamilton’s $30 million 2017 salary, so the Rangers likely won't have any qualms about dropping Hamilton from their roster if he’s not a fit come the end of spring training next year. That decision is still a long way off, however, and Hamilton can be expected to get a chance to prove he’s healthy in camp.
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As much of a disappointment as Hamilton has been since leaving Texas and signing his five-year, $125 million contract with the Angels after the 2012 season, he has remained an above-average offensive threat, hitting .255/.312/.427 (107 OPS+) in 1,199 plate appearances under his current contract. Yes, his production is way down from his former MVP-level, and there have been multiple negative indicators: His strikeout rate has climbed above 28%, his contact rate has dropped below 65%, his already poor walk rate reached a career low in 2015 and his ground-ball rate has increased as well. All of that paints the picture of a hitter who is increasingly undisciplined and overmatched at the plate.
There is still power in Hamilton’s bat, however, with his isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) exceeding .180 in two of the last three years. He has also held his own against lefthanded pitching over the last two seasons, with a big reverse split in 2014 and a fairly even split in 2015.
That’s not a player you want in your starting lineup on a regular basis, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone like that on the bench, particularly when that player is as talented as Hamilton and may yet be capable of getting hot and carrying a team for days at a time. If the Rangers do part ways with Hamilton, expect another team to give him a chance, even if it is as a non-roster player on a minor league contract.
The biggest challenge for Hamilton in attempting to extend his career is getting and proving himself healthy. It’s difficult to ascertain how much his fragility has impacted his performance over the last couple of years, but his games played totals under his new deal tell their own story: 151, 89, 50 and now zero.