Texas Rangers prepared to accept Josh Hamilton’s limited value

Jul 31, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers right fielder Josh Hamilton (32) strikes out against the San Francisco Giants during the game at Globe Life Park in Arlington. The Rangers defeated the Giants 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 31, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers right fielder Josh Hamilton (32) strikes out against the San Francisco Giants during the game at Globe Life Park in Arlington. The Rangers defeated the Giants 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

Josh Hamilton’s role – more in the immediate than the future – remains a complex question for the Texas Rangers. Simply speaking, the team shouldn’t and likely isn’t counting on him to be an integral part of the roster moving forward.

Anything they do receive will be, essentially, a bonus.

Hamilton’s history is well-documented. It’s a tragic tale, really, but one that is so well-known there is no need to delve into all of the gritty details all over again. The recent is what’s most relevant.

Hamilton went under the knife a year ago to repair the AC joint in his right shoulder. Including a rehab stint, he wouldn’t be activated and added to a Major League roster until late May – long after the Los Angeles Angels had traded him back to Texas.

Overall he’d appear in just 50 games for the Rangers over the course of the season.

Seven of them came in late May. His season debut represented a 1-for-11 showing on the road in Cleveland, with a walk and four strikeouts. The Rangers returned for the next four games against Boston. Hamilton was met with a standing ovation by the home crowd in his first at bat before hitting a second inning double to right field off of Eduardo Rodriguez, who was making his MLB debut. The next night Hamilton hit a pair of home runs, both solo shots to right field, off of knuckleballer Steven Wright.

Following the four-game set against the Red Sox in which he’d driven in five runs Hamilton needed to be shut down again. He’d miss nearly all of June, returning only for the team’s final game of the month.

Over the next six weeks Hamilton showed that he is hardly the same player. In 122 plate appearances over 30 games he’d manage to produce a weak .241/.270/.388 line. The 32 strikeouts were alarming. Hamilton’s bat speed wasn’t there anymore. Mid-August Texas would have to shut him down again for a few weeks.

With expanded rosters and continued nagging issues playing time was sparse upon a return to the roster in September. 12 more games to the season tally. 30 plate appearances. Seven hits. 12 more K’s.

In the end Hamilton saw just 182 PA on the year, batting a collective .253/.291/.441. He’d have just 16 extra-base hits, while striking out 52 times. Statistically speaking he posted career-lows in nearly every offensive category.

Much of Hamilton’s health issues last season were not a result of the February shoulder surgery, but rather the beginnings of the same knee problems that were revealed upon his arrival to Spring Training this week. Evan Grant at the Dallas Morning News summed things up fairly nicely with regards to Hamilton’s knee:

"It was sore all of last year. It required surgery after the season. It got sore again. It required an anti-inflammatory injection. And then after three weeks of being relatively pain-free, Hamilton acknowledged Wednesday that soreness had returned to the capsule area behind the left knee."

Despite it all, Hamilton said he believes he can play 120 games in 2016.

Hamilton’s optimism aside, it’s telling to note that he underwent surgery on the knee at the start of the offseason. Grant also notes the cortisone shot that Hamilton received in mid-January that provided some temporary relief, an option that isn’t likely to be repeated again soon for a variety of reasons.

Following news that the knee continued to be a problem upon his arrival to Spring Training it was only natural for speculation to jump straight to whether the Rangers will acquire another outfielder before the season begins. The speculation is expected, and only natural, but it may have been a little premature consider nobody knows yet just how much Hamilton will be slowed by the injury. None of the names thrown out there were necessarily game-changing options, however.

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Alejandro De Aza is one option that’s been suggested, though he just signed a one-year deal with the New York Mets in December. De Aza would need to approve of any trade made prior to June 1st, but a move out of New York might afford him more playing time. The Mets re-signed Yoenis Cespedes following their deal with De Aza, almost certainly pushing him into a strict bench role.

Former Rangers David Murphy and Will Venable were also speculated as options. Both are free agents whose representation, according to Grant, the team has at least “kept in touch with”.

You can forgive Rangers fans for not necessarily jumping out of their seats with excitement at any of those options.

Hamilton’s history with the club affords him some patience with the fan base. His story is one they know well as they were there to support him through the comeback and redemption. Patience is never unlimited, however.

Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh discussed Texas’ most-recent acquisition of Hamilton immediately following the deal last April. Lindbergh’s writing centers largely around the idea that the Rangers needed Hamilton just as much he needed the team. Together the pairing had climbed towards the top of the baseball world. Texas made multiple deep playoff runs. Hamilton was a fixture in MVP discussions.

Their original parting was ultimately a poor move that proved detrimental for both sides involved: Hamilton’s career nose-dived with the Angels, his personal life began to fall apart, and ultimately he relapsed which all brought about a public tirade by Angels owner Arte Moreno and the subsequent trade to Texas while the Rangers have missed the playoffs during the same time frame, suffering from their own series of key injuries and disappointments.

The Rangers were taking a chance in bringing him back into the mix, despite their history with him when he was having success they were all too familiar with his personal history of troubles. It was a cheap risk. Moreno’s tantrum and insistence on removing Hamilton from his roster resulted in the Angels picking up the vast majority of the $83 million remaining on his deal. Texas is only responsible for roughly $7 million (total) over the next two seasons.

Patience is never unlimited, however.

Hamilton may be a cheap risk for Texas, but it’s hard to predict exactly what kind of return the club will see. He’s 34 and will turn 35 in late-May. The gluttony of physical issues alone would make anyone in Hamilton’s position feel much older than their age may tell them, let alone adding in the years of substance problems and the long-lasting effect they’ve had on his abilities. Expecting a full, healthy season would simply be short-sighted.

Finding a reasonable comparable for Hamilton is no easy task, given the arc that his career has taken since the day he was first drafted. Baseball Reference’s Similarity Scores through age 34 note Kevin Mitchell, Nelson Cruz, and Wally Post as the top three most comparable players in the game’s history.

Cruz is hardly a fair place to start. For one thing, he’s still active and currently on a far different trajectory over the past few seasons than Hamilton. Perception is skewed right away here.

Despite missing a chunk of the 2013 season due to his association with BioGenesis, Cruz has rattled off seven straight seasons with at least 22 home runs while batting a combined .277/.338/.522. His last season, at age 34, was his best in terms of bWAR – a total of 5.2. Cruz hit .302/.369/.566 with 44 home runs, while taking home his first Silver Slugger Award in the first year of a multi-year deal in Seattle.

Post was a pitcher converted into a right fielder who played in parts of fifteen seasons from 1949-1964. Twelve of those came with the Cincinnati Reds.

Post’s career overall was respectable. He finished with a .266/.323/.485 line and 210 home runs, worth 18.3 bWAR. His best season came in 1955 when he finished 12th in MVP voting. He lead the National League in games played and strikeouts, but hit 40 home runs and 33 doubles, driving in 109, for a fifth-place Reds team.

Over the latter years of Post’s career his playing time diminished, though there are no known reasons to suggest that injury was a direct cause. The date from that era just isn’t there like it is for today’s. Post’s career ended at age 34, however. He’d appear in just five games in his final season, with the Cleveland Indians, going hitless in eight at bats.

Mitchell may be a more apt place to begin, since his career also took a precipitous drop following an MVP season.

Established as a fixture in the San Francisco Giants lineup at third base, the team moved Mitchell to the outfield in 1989 and he’d respond with the best season of his career. Leading the league in home runs (47), RBI (125), and OPS+ (192) he was a clear choice for the award at season’s end*.

*Giants teammate Will Clark finished second to Mitchell in MVP voting that year, despite having a better bWAR (8.6 vs. 6.9).

Mitchell would never top those numbers again, but he was still a productive piece of the team’s lineup the following season. A year later concerns began to spring up surrounding Mitchell’s attitude and effort, specifically centered on his weight. San Francisco would trade him to Seattle following the 1991 season. Seattle would ship him to Cincinnati a year later. Two years after that was the 1994 strike, which ultimately sent Mitchell overseas to play in Japan for a year.

Upon his return to the Major Leagues the weight concerns continued to plague him. Mitchell would play for four teams over the final three years of his career, starting with his age 34 season. Collectively he’d see 450 plate appearances over that stretch, hitting .263/.356/.434.

Hamilton’s knee (and shoulder and thumb and hernia and all the other physical ailments he’s dealt with over his career – he recently stated that he’s had fifteen surgeries to date) issues aren’t necessarily the same thing as Mitchell’s weight concerns. Each affects a player in different ways. Each player is unique, just as each injury is really unique in most cases.

Mitchell is often remembered as having attitude issues late in his career. The belief was that he didn’t want to put in the effort to lengthen his career and ultimately it was all over for him at age 36. He went 0 for 2 with two strikeouts in his final game in August 1998, pinch hitting for Rickey Henderson with the A’s as they were down 14-1 to a New York Yankees team being carried by Orlando Hernandez. Oakland would release him four days later.

Hamilton still has another chance in front of him and there haven’t been accounts suggesting that his work ethic should be called into question. Same goes for his overall attitude. Remember, it was Hamilton himself that suggested that he could play in 120 games this season. Ambition is supposed to be a good thing, even if it’s partially misguided.

Neither Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system nor Baseball Reference’s projections expect Hamilton to see significant playing time for the Rangers in 2016. PECOTA figures he’ll see 310 plate appearances, hitting .259 with 12 HR. B-Ref pegged him a 329 PA, with 11 HR and a .253/.309/.424 line. Projections aren’t everything (particularly given the backlash that PECOTA’s overall standings projections were received by the general public and all of #BaseballTwitter) but they do have their value to some degree.

It’s hard to expect that Hamilton is going to be able to a) remain healthy throughout the entire season, especially when he’s starting off on the wrong foot, and b) that he’ll even produce enough at the plate to justify the playing time if he is indeed healthy for a change. Texas does have options and won’t necessarily need to rush to make an outside acquisition.

Justin Ruggiano was signed as a free agent to serve as the team’s fourth outfielder. He’s always been a part-time guy, but he’s had stretches in his career where he’s been able to provide sufficient offensive support to play a pivotal role – as recently as 2014, when he hit .281/.337/.429 in 250 PA for the Cubs. He shouldn’t be used a team’s everyday option, but that wasn’t why Texas brought him in to begin with. He, along with a second option, would potentially be enough to make up for any loss if Hamilton’s out of the lineup for long.

Ryan Rua is an option for playing time. Let’s not forget that Mitch Moreland has some experience in an outfield corner as well.

Beyond that there are two names who Rangers fans are excited for: Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara. Either of them could be possible options if/when Hamilton no longer can fill his place in the lineup.

Gallo is primarily a third baseman, but the organization has already begun expanding his familiarity at other positions in order to work him into the lineup. No matter how impressive Gallo’s batting practice home run shows may be, it’s hard to see a prospect – any prospect – step in and unseat a surefire future Hall of Famer in Adrian Beltre at third base.

Working Gallo into the lineup more consistently could very well be a problem that the Rangers will be faced with early on this season. Barring a big spring or some kind of injury (Hamilton?) it’s hard to see where Gallo would fit into the team’s Opening Day roster. Receiving consistent at bats at Triple-A for another 6-8 weeks isn’t going to stall his development, but should actually prove beneficial. Gallo was rushed through the level a season ago when the big-league club was in dire need of support.

In 228 PA at Triple-A he hit just .195/.289/.450 with a worrisome 90 strikeouts. 14 of his 39 hits were home runs. In 123 PA with Texas the numbers were only marginally better: a .204/.301/.417 line, 6 HR, 57 SO. That’s a 41.8% strikeout rate over the top two levels – more than twice the MLB average in 2015.

Mazara reached Triple-A last season – 88 PA late in the season in which he hit .358/.409/.444 – but just turned 20 last April and has skyrocketed through Texas’ system. The club has no need or incentive to push him faster than necessary, but Mazara is already on the 40-man roster. He, like Gallo, will benefit most from additional time at Round Rock.

Lewis Brinson, James Jones, and Ryan Cordell are also on the 40-man roster already, though the latter was a recent addition to avoid the Rule 5 Draft. Cordell has yet to see any time above Double-A and figures to be a long way away from entering this discussion.

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Long term Texas has little need to worry if Josh Hamilton’s career continues to prove as frail as his physical state. The club is in a fortuitous situation thanks to an over-emotional move by their division rivals. With only $7 million officially on their books, the Rangers don’t have the financial ramification of a Hamilton-failure hanging over their heads. Los Angeles is covering that part of things.

Texas has history on their side as well, considering the fan base’s propensity to remember Hamilton for his best years, instead of his lowest moments. No other home stadium would feel nearly as welcoming at this point in Hamilton’s career.

Hamilton’s health will determine when (and whether?) he gets on the field. How he produces will determine how often he sees playing time. How he handles it all will determine how much rope the club will be willing to give him.

There’s no doubting that Texas has considered and planned for any and all of the potential scenarios that could come into play here with Hamilton. The club, presumably, has baseball people who are more knowledgeable about the game than me so it only stands to reason that somewhere these conversations have taken place. There are contingencies in place for how they’ll handle these situations.