10 Degrees: Josh Hamilton is this fall's prize free agent; Ethier and Hamels aren't bad either

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Of course the league adjusted. It's not like Josh Hamilton was going to maraud his way through six full months of pillaging pitchers' stuff and absconding with their self-worth. He had plundered enough trophies, and it was time for his comeuppance.

And so it began, the deconstruction that earns the advance scouts and video folk their weekly wage. Prey on his propensity to swing, as writer Joey Matschulat astutely noted, and do so by keeping the ball away from the reach of his left-handed tomahawk.

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Josh Hamilton was 3 for 11 with a homer in a weekend series in San Francisco. (US Presswire)

Up until the last two weeks, more than 22 percent of the pitches Hamilton saw were inside. Of those 149, more than 34 percent were in the strike zone. He smoked them like … well, you know. Hamilton was 15 for 40 with eight home runs and a slugging percentage of 1.025 on inside pitches. And so the scouts and video coordinators issued the terror alert: Do not – repeat, do not – go inside to Josh Hamilton.

Since then, pitchers have thrown inside to Hamilton on just 23 of 193 pitches, less than 12 percent. Four have been in the strike zone. Of the 24 pitches the Giants fed Hamilton on Sunday, two were inside, both in the dirt. And not one hit has dropped off an inside pitch.

Baseball players love to talk about the game's cat-and-mouse. Football is a brutal, straightforward battle that calls for 11 individual contributions to Voltron into one successful machine, basketball has tried to deemphasize its inherent one-on-one aspect, and hockey personifies teamwork, huge men on ice trying to manipulate a rubber disc with a thin blade. Baseball is the closest thing to a gunfight. And pitchers have seized Josh Hamilton's bullets.

Now it's his turn to adjust, and he's trying. He walked twice Sunday after drawing four in his previous 53 plate appearances. Four straight games he's got extra-base hits, including his major league-leading 22nd home run. He's atop the big leagues with 61 RBIs and a .698 slugging percentage, too. If pitchers keep playing scaredy cat inside, Hamilton will cheat toward the outside, and his natural power will send balls soaring out to the opposite field. He is better at hitting than almost every pitcher in the world is at pitching, and in due time he'll tip the scales back toward him.

[Also: Bruce Chen interview interrupted by teammate making 'slanted eyes' gesture]

At which point they'll find another weakness and exploit it. That's all this game is, epochs of back-and-forth in which the hitters hope the back is shorter than the forth. In Hamilton's case, the short decline does little to offset his inherent danger with a bat and opinions around the game on him. Even if he's ceding the best-player-in-baseball talk to the red-hot Joey Votto – a questionable proposition with Hamilton playing a far more important position – he's still Josh Hamilton, superstar, slump and all.

And that's an imperative point here at 10 Degrees Headquarters, where this week we're going to examine free-agent fortunes for the coming offseason – and how this season has affected their stock. Brand does matter, and only Derek Jeter can beat …

1. Josh Hamilton when it comes to public awareness among ballplayers. That is something for which teams will pay. As one general manager said earlier this year: "He will sell tickets." Some at least, and more than his brethren in the outfield, a loaded group for one offseason. Enough that we'll list 10, including Hamilton, whose stock report for this year is the best there is: Way up.

Andre Ethier: Broke out of a mini-slump with a grand slam Sunday and leads the NL with 52 RBIs – and that's with Dodgers teammate Matt Kemp having missed a month. Stock report: Way up.
Michael Bourn: Career best average (.320), OBP (.372) and SLG (.469) thus far. Only thing that could keep him from megabucks is Carl Crawford's cautionary tale. Stock report: Up.
Melky Cabrera: Baseball-best 87 hits and NL-leading .364 average. Due for a regression, but after two straight strong years, he's got believers. Stock report: Way up.
B.J. Upton: Seven years of waiting for him to grow into a superstar that he almost certainly isn't. Someone will dream big anyway. Stock report: Down.
Shane Victorino: Slumping Phillies not helping his cause. At 32, doesn't compare well to younger center fielders. Stock report: Slightly down.
Carlos Quentin: This season is a microcosm of his career. Hurt too much, crushes when he isn't. Those moments of crush are tough to forget. Stock report: Slightly up.
Nick Swisher: Like Victorino, a sneaky 32. Should be able to post high OBP for a while, which will be attractive to someone. Stock report: Even.
Torii Hunter: Has pop and can play all three outfield positions. Remains eminently employable. Stock report: Even.
Ichiro Suzuki: OBP below .300. Ground-ball rate down more than 10 percent. Turning 39 in October. Aging sucks, man. Stock report: Way down.
Option options: The New York Yankees almost certainly will lock up Curtis Granderson for a $13 million club option, unless they need to free up money to go all in on …

2. Cole Hamels as he plays the role his teammate, Cliff Lee, did two years ago: desperately wanted. Hamels will turn 29 this year. He's left-handed. He sports a 2.93 ERA. He's never been hurt. He throws four pitches. He won a World Series MVP award. He is a good-looking, well-spoken, married-to-a-reality-star guy who projects well publicly. So even though all of that is expected, it conspires for a stock report of: Up.

Zack Greinke: He's also 29. His strikeout rate is devastating, as is his stuff. Because teams worry about his ability to pitch in a high-pressure situation – a ludicrous and closed-minded assumption – he may never be the most sought-after free agent. He is one of the best. Stock report: Up.
Anibal Sanchez: Few know about him, which is a shame, because he's a legitimate No. 2, and there aren't a whole lot of those.Stock report: Slightly up.
Brandon McCarthy: Among the sub-3.00 ERA, great command and heavy sinker, he has turned from flameout to downright hot. Will be a big commodity this offseason. Stock report: Way up.
Edwin Jackson: Always healthy, walks are down, Ks are up – the sort of guy who almost certainly should get a multiyear deal. Stock report: Up
Shaun Marcum: The numbers are fine, but any long-term deal with a right-handed pitcher whose fastball sits at 87 mph is just begging for a Barry Zito-like bomb. Stock report: Slightly down.
Colby Lewis: Great start tempered by slight rough patch – and average fastball velocity dipping below 88 mph. Stock report: Even.
Hiroki Kuroda: The turkey sandwich of starters. Plain. Boring. Does what you need and does it well. Stock report: Even.
Kyle Lohse: A sinker-slider specialist whose regression won't keep teams from paying him.Stock report: Up.
Option options: Lots of 'em. Easy ones: James Shields ($9 million), R.A. Dickey ($5 million). A little tougher: Tim Hudson ($9 million), Dan Haren ($15.5 million with $3.5 million buyout), Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez ($9 million), Jorge De La Rosa ($11 million), Scott Baker ($9.25 million), Gavin Floyd ($9.5 million). Very tough: Jake Peavy ($22 million) and Ervin Santana ($13 million), who costs the same as …

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Kevin Youkilis

3. Kevin Youkilis and arrives with a similar warning label. What once seemed like an easy decision – exercise an option on a core player – has been upended. Since returning from a back injury, Youkilis has struck out 17 times in 57 at-bats. Especially next to Will Middlebrooks, he looks a lot older than 33, and for all of the outfield and pitching depth, Youkilis' spot atop the third-base list illustrates a frightening paucity of good infielders in the Class of '13. Stock report: Way down.

Mark Reynolds: Like Youkilis, his club owns an option (at $11 million) unlikely to be exercised. If he's going to strike out all the time, the least he can do is hit home runs. Stock report: Down.
Placido Polanco: He's 36 and hitting like it. Not much more than a good superutility guy at this juncture. Stock report: Down.
Jose Lopez: Yeah, he's the next-best option. Stock report: Slightly up, because there really was nowhere else to go.
Eric Chavez: Welcome to the backup portion of our program. Stock report: Even.
Option option: Surely the New York Mets will pick up the $16 million on David Wright or nullify it by signing him to a long-term extension. Should the Mets deal him, Wright could void the option, though that's as likely to happen as …

4. David Ortiz ever leaving Boston. It's becoming more apparent that Big Papi is a Boston lifer, and another big year – .308/.391/.585, with an OPS behind only Hamilton, Paul Konerko and Mark Trumbo in the AL – is cementing his spot there. Ortiz doesn't want to go anywhere. Boston shouldn't want him to, either. Stock report: Up.

Lance Berkman: We could’ve stuck him at first base or outfield, but Berkman, with his bad knees gone worse this year, is a four-times-a-game hacker waiting to happen. He'd own that role. Stock report: Even.
Bobby Abreu: From cut by the Angels to keeping the Kemp-less Dodgers afloat. Now someone might overpay him. Stock report: Up.
Raul Ibanez: Tied for 20th in baseball with nine homers against right-handers. Exactly how he can sustain his career. Stock report: Slightly up.
Generic Other DHs: Oh, Johnny Damon/Vlad Guerrero/Hideki Matsui/Manny Ramirez/Jim Thome. No need to do this again. Stock report: Down.
Option option: Smart money says the Indians rid themselves of the albatross that is Travis Hafner's $13 million option. He's got the on-base skills to help someone. Though he may be fighting …

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Edwin Encarnacion

5. Edwin Encarnacion for a roster spot somewhere since Encarnacion's best position actually is DH. But since first base is dryer than a Laundromat, and he has played there nearly 20 games this season, Encarnacion it is. And his 17 home runs match last year's total and make this year the right one to hit free agency. Stock report: Way up.

Adam LaRoche: Almost never is a mutual option triggered. One side feels like the money is too much or not enough. LaRoche has been worth plenty more than the $10 million his option calls for. Stock report: Way up.
Carlos Lee: Hits for average with a little power, never strikes out and can afford to take a cheaper deal because he got the most ill-advised $100 million contract in history. Stock report: Slightly up.
Carlos Pena: Takes some mighty fine on-base skills to have an OPS+ over 100 with a batting average under .200. Stock report: Down.
James Loney: This sentence is like James Loney: It got off to a great start, and then it Stock report: Down.
Option option: The Giants have an option to pay Aubrey Huff $10 million. And I have an option to pay the kid down the block $500 to mow my grass. Both are bad ideas, a regularity in free agency, and with such craziness comes multiyear deals for …

[Also: Mike Moustakas misses first base, settles for very long, very strange single]

6. Kelly Johnson because he's the best second baseman available and teams turn dumb during the offseason. Johnson is positively OK. He hits home runs, plays decent defense, strikes out a lot – good for a team with a hole, yeah, but nothing spectacular. His OBP is at its career rate. His SLG is low. He is the least interesting man in the world. Stock report: Even.

Freddy Sanchez: He has been on the DL all year. Woe is this position. Stock report: Down.
Jeff Keppinger: He has batted cleanup for Tampa Bay seven times this season. The Rays are in first place. All this is to say Joe Maddon does black magic. Stock report: Even.
Ryan Theriot: OBP his last five years – .321, .320, .323, .321, .325. At least he's consistently below average. Stock report: Slightly down.
Orlando Hudson: From cut by the worst team in baseball to the fifth-best available second baseman. Happy shopping! Stock report: Way down.
Option option: The Yankees are as likely to pick up Robinson Cano's $15 million option as the Diamondbacks are to let …

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Stephen Drew

7. Stephen Drew walk away, even if he is the best shortstop in the Class of '13. Drew, as Drews are wont to do, has returned slowly from an injury. Granted, he broke his ankle in horrific fashion, something that seems not to matter to Arizona owner Ken Kendrick, who emptied an Uzi at Drew's character last week. Enjoy that dynamic Willie Bloomquist/John McDonald duo at shortstop, Kenny! Stock report: Down

Alex Gonzalez A 35-year-old coming off a torn ACL is the second-best shortstop available. Stock report: Down.
Marco Scutaro: A 36-year-old with an adjusted OPS of 72 playing his home games in Colorado is the third-best shortstop available. Stock report: Down.
Jason Bartlett Forget an OPS+ of 72. That's triple Bartlett's 24, which ranks as the 17th lowest in the last five years among hitters with at least 98 plate appearances. Stock report: Way down.
Yuni Betancourt: Told you shortstop was dreadful. Stock report: Even.
Option option: The Tigers should exercise Jhonny Peralta's $6 million option, even if Peralta isn't terribly keen on exercise himself. His weight yo-yoing continues while …

8. Mariano Rivera looks the same as he did two decades ago. Well, aside from the scar Dr. David Altchek is scheduled to slice through his knee Tuesday when Rivera finally has surgery to repair an anterior cruciate ligament he tore more than five weeks ago. A blood clot in his right calf delayed the surgery, which should have Rivera back on the mound by the beginning of next season. For the Yankees, in case there was any question. Stock report: Slightly down.

Jonathan Broxton: Just call him The Prescription: He could use some Lipitor, people need nitroglycerin watching him close a game and yet he's effective in 9 of 10 doctors' eyes. Stock report: Up.
Huston Street: Big-time trade bait likely will hit free agency with a $9 million mutual option on his deal. When he's healthy, he's good. Stock report: Up.
Mike Adams: Closer mindset. Closer stuff. Has slipped some this year, his cutter especially, which he's throwing 18 percent less. Stock report: Slightly down.
Joakim Soria: With his $8 million club option likely to be declined, Soria comes off Tommy John surgery without a safety net. Who takes a shot? Stock report: Down.
Ryan Madson: The Reds aren't paying $11 million next year for the privilege to watch him rehab. Soria 2.0. Stock report: Down.
Jose Valverde: Looked primed to cash in coming off a perfect 2011. Instead has -0.1 Wins Above Replacement. More like Papa Pequeño. Stock report: Way down.
Kyle Farnsworth: Still hasn't thrown a pitch this year. What is it with guys who throw 20 pitches every couple of nights hurting themselves? Stock report: Down.
Brandon League: Lost his closer job to Tom Wilhelmsen and all semblance of control he had discovered last year. Stock report: Down.
Francisco Rodriguez: More like an $800,000 setup man than an $8 million one. Stock report: Down.
Option option: Lots of tough ones among closers. Does Rafael Soriano parlay his season with the Yankees into more than his $14 million player option? Do the Diamondbacks want J.J. Putz at $6.5 million, the Twins Matt Capps at $6 million, the A's Grant Balfour at $4.5 million? Combined, the three have gone 11 at-bats without allowing a hit to …

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Mike Napoli

9. Mike Napoli, whose splits are actually better against relievers than against starters. While Napoli isn't putting up unfair numbers like he did last year – to wit: 1.046 OPS – he's still among the best-hitting catchers in baseball and a legitimate enough threat to warrant a four-year deal. Stock report: Slightly down.

Russell Martin: The Carlos Pena of the backstop. Batting average barely above .200, OPS over .780. And he's only 29. Stock report: Slightly up.
A.J. Pierzynski: Holy revitalization. Pierzynski is usually an A+ nuisance and C-minus ballplayer. With 10 homers and a slugging percentage over .500, the latter grade is inching toward the former. Stock report: Up.
Ryan Doumit: If he's healthy, he can hit. He's healthy. He's hitting. This was a complicated one. Stock report: Slightly up.
Chris Iannetta Owns the ability to void a $5 million club option, which may be in that sweet spot that's right for the club and the player. If not, he'll have suitors despite continued trouble getting his average over .200 and nagging injuries. Stock report: Down.
Option options: With Brian McCann for $12 million and Carlos Ruiz for $5 million, the Braves and Phillies have the two easiest pick-ups of the offseason. Plenty more taxing is the Rangers figuring out whether to help fund …

10. Josh Hamilton's charitable contributions to the world. That's what his wife, Katie, told Sports Illustrated this week: The Hamiltons do indeed want to be like real Texans and strike oil somewhere, be it in the Lone Star State or elsewhere, because God is sending them on a mission to enrich others' lives or proselytize, depending on your perspective.

It takes money to do that, money Hamilton will get from someone as long as his body holds up the rest of the season. Sometime soon, if history is any indication, Hamilton will get a cortisone shot to ease some of the pain that permeates much of his body, and he'll shrug it off like it's nothing more than maintenance, which it is. But such maintenance in a 31-year-old is off-putting, if not frightening, and the sort of thing that will cut into the second number of the nine figures Hamilton will receive.

The second number is the important one. The first will be a 1. Barring him ending up in a ditch whacked out on crack, Hamilton will get someone to pay him more than $100 million. Whether it's $110 million or $180 million depends on the in between, on his health and his production and his ability to reach out and poke hits while pitchers refuse to throw inside. For now, that's Josh Hamilton's baseball life, and he'll adjust because that's what he does, what all great players do.

He's got a contract to earn, a gospel to spread, a cause to fulfill. He's the head of the Class of 2013, and like every graduation, it's coming sooner than you think.

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