MLB Free Agency - Predicting Josh Hamilton

Today, I'm taking a look at Josh Hamilton's free agency campaign.  I'll take a look at his body of work and try to gauge what he might be worth on the free-agent market by comparing a couple of other free-agent deals that have been inked in recent years.  Finally, I'll give you a few potential landing points based on need and ability to sign a free agent of his caliber.

Josh Hamilton and his agent (Michael Moye) made headlines at the onset of this off season by announcing that Hamilton would be seeking a seven year deal worth roughly $175 million... and General Managers across the country collectively shuddered and crossed one name off their list.  Josh Hamilton is a phenomenal player.  He's a perennial American League all-star and MVP candidate (having won one in 2010).  In fact, he has been named on an MVP ballot in every season he has gotten at least 500 plate appearances since breaking into the major leagues in 2007 at the age of 26.  He is a capable center fielder, which makes him a versatile above average corner outfielder, defensively.  When Josh Hamilton finally broke into the big leagues (he spent three years on the restricted list)... When Josh Hamilton is on the field - not injured (has missed the equivalent of a full season due to injury)... his play, on the field, has proven that Josh Hamilton is Hall of Fame caliber.

According to Baseball Reference, the player that Hamilton is most similar to is Indian Bob Johnson.  If you have followed FBJ for a while, you'll know that Indian Bob is one of our favorite players (certainly underrated).  Johnson earned a spot on the A's All-Time team as well as the 1930 AL All-Decade team and while he may not be in the Hall of Fame, his numbers indicate that he was good enough.  His biggest problem - Indian Bob had the misfortune of being stuck behind some very good A's outfielders in his early 20's... between 1928 and 1932, while Johnson was in the minor leagues, Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's had won two World Series championships, three American League pennants and did not finish a season with less than 94 wins (they only played 154 games back then) so Johnson didn't get his chance until 1933 at age 27. Had he played a couple more seasons, Indian Bob would have been a shoe-in for Cooperstown.  Hamilton, in my opinion, is in the same boat... if not for the other stuff (late start - injuries), Hamilton is a Hall of Famer.  His numbers might be slightly inflated (Arlington is a great hitters park) but Hamilton is a great hitter with all-world talent and should be respected as such.

So where does that take us?  Looking for comparisons... thinking about All-Star players that were injury prone and/or carrying baggage prior to signing their free-agent deals.  Thinking about MVP-type players that signed deals in their early thirties...

Relevant Comparisons

I put Griffey on here because I see some similarities in the mental makeup of the two and I think that Griffey's preference in contract is worth pointing out... Griffey signed a nine year deal that was considered to be less than "market value" because he wanted the assurance of being able to stay in one place.  Griffey's battles with depression are well documented - with the ball in his court, Griffey opted for stability and peace of mind over the ability to make more money (and for the record, his agent was Brian Goldberg).  Griffey was thirty years old at the time he signed his deal.  Griffey broke his wrist in 1995 and missed half the season but other than that, had been a beacon for consistency.  The interesting thing to note here is that Griffey prioritized a lengthy contract over a a shorter one that could have netted him more money.  His deal ended up being a nine-year pact worth roughly $116.5 million (roughly $13 million per season)... inflation adjusted, that might be a $16-17.5 million per season deal but the real sticking point to me is the length and I could see Hamilton giving a team a steep discount in annual salary for some long-term assurance that he won't have to move his family again.

Hamilton's teammate, a four-time Gold Glove award winner, is another guy that I would consider to be on the road to Cooperstown.  A few more seasons like the one he just had will put him on a lot of ballots.  His 2004 season (which saw him hit 48 home runs - an overwhelmingly high career mark for Beltre) has raised a lot of question marks with regards to steroids but nothing has ever been proven.  Regardless, the speculation turned a lot of people away from Beltre when he became a free agent in 2010 (after posting a .321/.365/.553 campaign with the Red Sox).  The Rangers swooped in and signed Beltre for six years, giving him $96 million ($16 million per season).  

This one seems to come up a lot.  Howard played his first full season in the big leagues in 2005 at the ripe age of 25.  The Big Piece went on to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP award in back-to-back seasons (the second player in history to do so - Cal Ripken Jr. being the first in 1982-83) so when Howard signed his mega-deal to stay with the Phillies at age 30 (buying out his final two years of arbitration and adding five years as an extension), it wasn't a huge surprise but it was widely criticized to be too lucrative for the hulkish slugger.  At the end of the day, the deal was seven years and $23.43 million per season.

This one will come up a lot as we move forward.  Werth made a name for himself in Philadelphia - an integral part of the 2008 World Series team - but unfortunately, he might end up being remembered more for the seven year, $142 million contract he signed to leave Philadelphia.  An enigmatic player with a reputation for being a fierce competitor, Werth had overcome a traumatic wrist injury in Los Angeles (his home prior to Philadelphia) - an injury which cost him an entire season in 2006 - and reinvented himself with the Phillies in 2007 and 2008.  He was revered by Phillies fans for his patience and grit.  He left Philly with a .380 on-base-percentage and an adjusted OPS+ that had gone up every season from 2007-2010.  While Werth might not have the hardware (that other players on this list do), he did ink a seven year contract for $20.29 million per season to be a veteran presence and to help mold the culture inside the Nationals clubhouse.

Hamilton's Projection

Looking at these numbers, it's fairly obvious to me that Hamilton is going to end up getting a decent contract but probably not the seven-year, $175 million deal he was looking for (at least not guaranteed).  While the 2013 free-agent market is fairly weak with regards to impact bats (which bodes well for the slugger), Hamilton has a lot of baggage that will inevitably scare more than a few suitors away.  There's also the fact that history often repeats itself... looking at the list of names above, I'd say all that there's a fair amount of buyer's remorse surrounding 30 year-old free agent contracts.  I think that most teams will be very hesitant to give Josh a seven year pact but I do think that's where his priorities will be when this thing shakes out and there could be a ripe opportunity here for a risk-taking GM to come in and woo Hamilton under some favorable terms - more years, less money.  Given the baggage and injury concerns, the market for Hamilton will present itself as a bit soft.  After a while, we'll know what Hamilton is truly looking for... is he interested in maximizing his earnings potential or is he more focused on ensuring a stable, long-term situation that will be good for him and his family.  Inevitably, I think he leans in the direction of the latter and I think he ends up signing a seven-year incentive laden deal... a deal like that makes sense for Hamilton and for everyone, really, because because a Josh Hamilton that is motivated to stay on track is capable of great things.  The guaranteed money could be something in the range of $115 million but the escalators in a long-term deal should bring the total potential contract value close to $160 million.  Maybe there's a mutual opt-out in there in year three or four... flexibility is good for everyone (if it's not a good fit for Josh, as a man, he needs to have that assurance that there's a way out).  A healthy Hamilton at $16 million per year is a bargain... none of his injuries thus far have been serious and I think a lot of teams will get back into the mix for Hamilton as he softens his demands.  

Potential Suitors

Looking back at needs pieces that I wrote (American League and National League), there are a few teams that could be in the market for an impact corner outfielder - the Brewers, Indians, Mariners, Orioles, Red Sox, Braves, Giants, Mets, Padres and Phillies are teams that will be looking for help in the outfield (replacing free agents and/or in need of an impact bat).  

The Yankees have remained quiet on Hamilton and frankly, I doubt that Hamilton feels that New York would be a good fit for him and his family (that excludes the Mets from the list of likely Hamilton suitors).  

I'm not sure the Indians, Mariners and Mets are actually capable of signing Hamilton at what he'll eventually fetch... none of those teams really have the pieces in place to win now which makes a risky move like this very insensible.

The Red Sox off-loaded a ton of salary but remain a "win now"  team.  I would expect them to have the resources to put a nice package together and 

The Phillies have been rumored heavily, as of late, but they will have to commit to crossing over the luxury tax threshold to obtain Hamilton or find a way to off-load salary (via trade).  Ruben Amaro's comments regarding his annual salary demands as "not being the problem" makes me wonder what in the world he's thinking - if they go all in on Hamilton, they'll be at their absolute max with regards to payroll, as my calculation has them at $165 million with two holes on their 25-man roster.  Adding Hamilton at $20 million would surely put them over the threshold.  It would also mean that the Phillies would once again attempt to go into a season with inexperienced relievers and a stop-gap third baseman while relying on Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to come back healthy (and under the Hamilton scenario, either John Mayberry Jr, Domonic Brown or Josh Hamilton in center field).  And an already lefty-heavy lineup would become even more lefty-heavy.  To that end, Hamilton and the Phillies has to be a long-shot, at best (regardless of what Amaro is saying).  

The Padres have a new ownership group which makes them an intriguing suitor... a long-shot because they're so far from being relevant but intriguing.  

The Brewers GM Doug Melvin made comments about pursuing Hamilton which makes them a potential suitor but the Brewers have bigger issues than signing Josh Hamilton... their offense was fine in 2012 but their rotation was among the worst in baseball and I would expect them to go hard for an ace first.  

The Braves certainly need to replace the offense that will be lost by the retirement of Chipper Jones and the free agency of Michael Bourn but I don't think Hamilton fits the mold of what they like to do.  

I have a feeling that the Giants could emerge as a very serious contenders for Hamilton... I recognize that it goes against their modus operandi but the Giants just won another World Series and have every reason to do whatever they can to thwart the ongoing efforts of their division rival LA Dodgers to gain market share (the Dodgers made headlines last season by trading for Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and Carl Crawford).  

The Orioles are making a strong push to stay relevant after a very successful (and surprising) 2012 campaign.  The Orioles were seemingly an impact bat away from winning a postseason series but they're also very young and the only thing that can seemingly stall their progress is a bad deal.  The current ownership group is still wiping their wounds from the five-year deal that they handed to Albert Belle... I would expect the Orioles to cool on Hamilton as they realize that there are other fish in the sea which won't cost them as much as Hamilton but I also think that Baltimore could be a nice fit for Josh (who hails from North Carolina).  

Where He'll End Up

Your guess is likely better than mine.  There are a couple teams on the West Coast that could be in the mix but I'm not sure if Hamilton is ready to be that far from home (whether you call home NC or Texas, those places are a long way from Seattle and San Diego).  Boston and New York might be too pressure-packed for Hamilton and ultimately, he may feel compelled to stay with the Rangers.  The problem there - the Rangers seem to be playing hard ball (it has been rumored that they are unwilling to offer Hamilton a deal longer than three years)... or maybe they really are just ready to move on.  The Orioles will need to do some soul searching before they pull the trigger on a deal like this... is now the time?  At the end of the day, I feel that it could come down to the Orioles, Rangers and Giants.  Logically, I just think that these three teams have the most pieces that fit but this is a complicated puzzle so anything can happen.


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