A top-five hitter in the game, Hamilton is seeing only mild interest from the biggest spenders. Image: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

The (Small) Market for Josh Hamilton

Milwaukee, Baltimore, Seattle. Is this really the market for Josh Hamilton?

The 2012 free agent class is admittedly thin. Last year, not only was there an Albert Pujols, but Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes, and a pair of international superstars in Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes. This year, the class is lead by Hamilton and pitcher Zack Greinke, but the rest of the pool is clearly second-tier, which means no disrespect to guys like Michael Bourn, Anibal Sanchez and B.J. Upton, but there are two superstars in this group. That’s it.

Hamilton is the elite hitter on the market and there are teams in major markets that need an elite hitter. Yet so far in the process, Hamilton is being courted by a list of teams mostly comprised of those in mid-to-small markets; teams that don’t traditionally spend the kind of money on a player that Hamilton would like to earn.

The Phillies are said to be interested, but there isn’t a great fit there. Philadelphia is already far too left handed and loaded with huge contracts. Ruben Amaro, Jr. has surprised before and landed the biggest fish when no one expected him to, but they’d be asking Hamilton to take a short term deal with a high annual value.

That’s pretty much the same offer that Hamilton will find in Texas, where he’s spent the past five seasons. No team knows Hamilton better than the Rangers and they’ve been passive in their pursuit of the 2010 AL MVP. They’ll give him three years, they say, but no more.

Hamilton is said to be seeking a seven year deal. It’s a contract no one expects him to get. Then again, no one expected that Prince Fielder would get nine years. It only takes one GM, one owner, to go a little crazy when presented the opportunity to land the off-season’s biggest prize.

And despite the history of addiction and injury, Hamilton is the biggest prize.

So where are the biggest teams?

The problem is that while the market is thin overall, the outfield market is actually very healthy. Not only are Bourn and Upton competing for contracts, but Shane Victorino, Nick Swisher, and Ichiro Suzuki are available as well. Even with Torii Hunter now off to Detroit, there remains a glut of outfield bats and all of them come with considerably less baggage than Hamilton. They also come with considerably smaller price tags.

Instead of setting the market for outfielders, instead of sitting back and watching as the biggest payrolls in baseball bid against each other for his services, Hamilton has gotten only lukewarm interest from the major markets. The Dodgers aren’t in on him, neither are the Angels. The Yankees haven’t shown serious interest and neither have the Tigers, really. Whatever interest they might have had evaporated with the Hunter signing one would think. Of course, you can never count out Mike Ilitch.

The one remaining behemoth is the Boston Red Sox; a team with very deep pockets and very little committed to the payroll. This is a team that Hamilton needs to be involved in the bidding, whether he ultimately signs there or not. He needs a club that can move the market and force other teams to bid against the fear of missing out on a once-in-a-generation hitter, even if that hitter is a flawed human being.

Those flaws, however, are what is limiting Hamilton’s interest.

The Mariners are definitely in and they have the money to spend. The fences are being moved in, finally, at SafeCo Field, which will help attract a hitter. They hope that Hamilton will take their money, but there’s no way they go to seven years. Five years seems like the limit for even the most aggressive (desperate?) bidders, but that may ultimately be the best offer Hamilton gets. The Mariners will move out of the cellar in the AL West whether they sign Hamilton or not, thanks to the Astros switching leagues, but adding the left handed slugger would move them closer to contention. Even with him though, would they be better than a fourth-place club? Texas, Oakland, and the Angels would all figure to still have better clubs.

The Brewers are intriguing because they are willing to pay big bucks on a short term deal and they already have a team capable of reaching the playoffs. Should they add Hamilton to a lineup that already boasts Aramis Ramirez, Corey Hart, and some guy named Ryan Braun, the Brewers are suddenly a team no pitcher would want to face. Miller Park is a good place to hit and Hamilton would balance the lineup quite well. Speaking from a purely baseball standpoint, this is the best fit for Hamilton, but I doubt Doug Melvin has the financial resources to make the winning offer. If the market falls apart and Hamilton will settle for three years, the Brewers will be in the mix. But if they wait for that to happen, they won’t get him.

In Baltimore, Hamilton would join a club that pushed the Yankees every step of the way in the brutal AL East. The ballpark is one Hamilton has had great success in and it’s a team full of hitters. It’s also a team that won a lot of games they probably shouldn’t have last year and one that did so without much in the way of starting pitching. That’s not a formula that often works. From a competitive standpoint, this might be the riskiest landing spot for Hamilton. With the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox always in the mix (and Boston will be back), plus the moves Toronto has made to improve, Baltimore could be right back in the basement even with Hamilton in the lineup. Peter Angelos has the money and he’s willing to spend it on the right player, but he’s also preached signing high character players. Someone with Hamilton’s history probably doesn’t fit that criteria.

If Boston gets seriously involved, they remain the most likely destination. It simply makes too much sense not to happen. The risk that comes with Hamilton is great, but there are teams that can afford to take risks like this one. When it comes right down to it, that’s the difference between big market teams and those in smaller markets. If Boston or New York hands out a huge contract and it blows up on them, they can out-spend their mistakes. If they give Hamilton $25 million and he winds up getting hurt and missing the bulk of the season, they can make a mid-season trade for another guy at $15 million to pick up the slack. If the same situation happens in Milwaukee, the Brewers can’t overcome that. Smaller market teams simply cannot afford to miss on a huge contract. It would set the franchise back for years.

When all is said and done, it’s that very risk that will prevent most teams from going beyond three years in their offer for Hamilton. The really aggressive will go to four or five years. If they want to get a deal done with the best hitter on the market, the first team that goes to six years may very well get their man.

Tags: Josh Hamilton Milwaukee Brewers MLB Rumors Seattle Mariners

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