Or as we like to call it around these parts; The Hot Stove Season.
Of the free agents expected to hit the market in the coming hours or days, none of them will garner as much debate as Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton.
The pure dearth of hitters available is one reason why the Dodgers were willing to stomach the August deal with the Red Sox that brought them Adrian Gonzalez. That said, there is no doubt that Hamilton will be the preeminent slugger on the market this winter. He is a five-time All-Star, former American League MVP who has hit 25 or more home runs in four of the last five seasons and driven in 90 or more during the same span. He is also coming off of a season where he hit .285 with 43 home runs, 128 RBI, and a .930 OPS.
That said, Hamilton will likely command a deal worth at least six seasons and north of $20 million per year. There are only two questions that remain:
1.) Is Hamilton worth that lofty contract?
2.) What team is willing to take the risk?
Based on performance alone, Hamilton is a stellar player. During his MVP season in 2010, he was worth 8.4 wins above replacement. However, that number dropped to 3.5 and 3.4 in the last two seasons respectively. The fall off is mostly due to the fact that Hamilton has fought through nagging injuries in each of the last two season, which have sapped his ability to stay on the field (121 games in 2011 and 148 games in 2012) and made him more of a defensive liability. In fact, Hamilton has played in more than 150 games just once in his career, during the 2008 season, his first in Texas.
It is those injuries which will have the greatest impact on Hamilton’s suitors. At 31-years-old, he is likely looking for his last long-term contract, but as his body continues to break down, it makes it more difficult to give him a contract that he may not be able to live up to fully. That becomes more of an issue if he is relegated to being a designated hitter during the latter end of said deal, where his market becomes significantly more limited.
Another determining factor could be his sudden rise in strike-outs. Prior to 2012, Hamilton’s previous career high was 126, set in 2008. Hamilton’s 2012 total of 162 dwarfed that number.
Still, there are teams with money to spend that will look at Hamilton as a significant upgrade. Outside of Hamilton possibly returning to the Rangers, other possible suitors will still likely pop up.
The Baltimore Orioles are one of those teams. Orioles left fielders were abyssmal in 2012, putting together a combined OPS of .694. Hamilton would give the Orioles another impact bat around Adam Jones. Sure, Chris Davis was a solid addition for the Orioles, but Baltimore would be smart to hedge their bets against a regression in 2013. Peter Angelos has been known to love veterans and after last season’s success, he could want to add that piece that pushes the Orioles further.
The Toronto Blue Jays would be an interesting club to chase Hamilton, as Alex Anthopoulos is getting pushed to field a winner and is being given extra funds to do so. However, the team needs pitching about all else and adding Hamilton may reduce their ability to add an impact arm to the rotation. Toronto will likely pass and hope that Jose Bautista returns strongly from wrist surgery.
Another team with similar issues to those of the Orioles are the Miami Marlins. Only the Cleveland Indians finished with a lower OPS from their left fielders than the Marlins. Likewise, the Marlins showed last offseason that they are willing to spend in order to prove to the fan base that they are bent on contending. Sure, the 2012 Marlins were eventually torn back down, but Loria may make another run in 2013, this time putting Hamilton into the line-up in the spot he hoped to have Albert Pujols last winter. Think of a line-up where you have Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Hamilton back-to-back and tell me that does not frighten you.
Regardless of where he lands, Hamilton will be one of the big horses to watch this winter. And we will be watching, with great interest.