The Josh Hamilton who hit four home runs Tuesday night is a player the Texas Rangers would love to sign long term, and considering that sources told Yahoo! Sports they've reopened negotiations with him on an extension, they're trying.
The Josh Hamilton who fell off the wagon in February is a year-at-a-time question mark whom neither the Rangers nor any team in baseball can trust with a huge-money deal.
He is indubitably both men: the American League's representative in the most-talented-player-in-baseball contest opposite the National League's Matt Kemp and the recovering addict who twice has suffered embarrassing public relapses that, coupled with a deep injury history, muddy any prognosis of long-term viability. The dichotomy defines Hamilton. For every moment to savor – from his kicking a crack habit to his historic Home Run Derby showing to his AL MVP award to his becoming the 16th member of the four-homer club against the Baltimore Orioles – just as many draw concern from the teams tasked with properly valuing him as he is primed to hit free agency for the first time this offseason.
Whereas questions about how they would age accompanied Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder's forays into the open market last offseason, Hamilton's case is more complicated, his past hovering over his present. And it's what makes the time between now and when he signs his next contract so fascinating.
Now, all of this may be moot. After tabling extension talks following the February incident in which Hamilton drank, the Rangers and the player's representatives have started discussing a long-term contract. Just how much Hamilton's incredible start – he leads the major leagues in batting average (.406), home runs (14), RBIs (36) and slugging percentage (.840) – has emboldened him will in large part determine whether the sides can hammer out a deal to keep the 30-year-old outfielder in Texas. The Rangers understand he's among a handful of players capable of nights like Tuesday: a quartet of two-run homers, off three different pitchers, plus a double for an AL record 18 total bases.
[Big League Stew: Josh Hamilton's four-homer feat is rarer than a perfect game]
Like other teams, they remain wary of handing Hamilton the sort of deal Pujols (10 years, $240 million) or Fielder (nine years, $214 million) received even though he may be a superior all-around player at a more coveted position. Despite Hamilton's ascent to superstardom, the Rangers haven't committed more than two seasons at a time to him during his arbitration years, fearful that his years of drug use left his body especially susceptible to injuries.
Others share the concern. Three general managers surveyed following the four-homer game Tuesday agreed that even if Hamilton were to play the entire season and finish healthy, they would have trouble giving him much beyond a six-year deal – if that.
Of his five seasons in the major leagues, Hamilton has played more than 133 games just once. Over the past three years, he has missed 143 games with injuries nagging and serious. Even with a free-agent class light on stars – Hamilton, Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke profile as the top three players available – and the game flush with money from local television contracts gone wild, the GMs believe the concerns could leave Hamilton seeking a shorter deal with a higher average annual value.
Of course, the open market is a place that rarely values logic. Handing a decade-long deal to a 32-year-old, as the Los Angeles Angels did with Pujols, does more to create a splash and foster short-term results than it does ensure down-the-road viability. Big free-agent deals are like balloon mortgages, and the majority pop long before they're due.
Still, it's reasonable for Hamilton to seek the sort of money afforded players of his caliber. Kemp, 27, signed an eight-year, $160 million extension last offseason. A year before that, the Washington Nationals gave seven years and $126 million to outfielder Jayson Werth, who turned 32 less than two months after he signed, like Hamilton will.
The most important thing to remember about free agency: All it takes is one team. One team to covet his talent. One team to dream he stays healthy. One team to crave his star power. Just one to take a sledgehammer to sanity.
That won't be the Rangers, at least not midseason. Paying free agency prices now would be madness. They would bank on their inherent advantages to settle on a deal short enough to mitigate the injury questions and lucrative enough to convince Hamilton it's worth signing.
He's comfortable in Texas. The team knows him and his needs. With a superlative core in place – Yu Darvish, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Derek Holland and Elvis Andrus are signed long-term – and one of the game's best farm systems, the Rangers should remain a powerhouse for years.
Leaving for greater riches is not as simple as chasing dollars, either. Pujols did, and while those across the game expect him to extract himself from a seasonlong funk, it's impossible to ignore his struggles. Hamilton could go 0 for his next 210 and his slugging percentage still would be higher than Pujols'.
In the meantime, Hamilton trucks on, doing unreal things, trying to stay sober, hoping his body cooperates with the former and his mind with the latter. This is his life, brilliance tempered by uncertainty, and why as fascinating as this season could be, the offseason could be even more so.
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