THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 22, 2007: Volquez and Herrera for Hamilton

From the December 14 Newberg Report:

"There’s obviously a need on this club for another high-ceiling young outfielder.  Texas has to be as light in impact outfielders between the 40-man roster and the upper levels of the farm system as any organization in baseball.  The club can’t afford to go into every foreseeable winter (until Julio Borbon and Engel Beltre and maybe John Mayberry Jr. arrive — which assumes that everything goes right with their own development) trying to add an outfielder or two.  It’s too expensive and it hamstrings the effort to effectively build other parts of the roster."

As far as the Rangers’ outfield crew is concerned, the organization just acquired its ace.   

In exchange for a pitcher many hoped had reasserted himself in 2007 toward becoming the future ace of the Texas rotation.

Wow.

One of the fascinating things about Edinson Volquez (plus Danny Ray Herrera) for Josh Hamilton is that, just one year ago, you can argue that neither Volquez nor Hamilton had any trade value at all.  Today, it’s stunning that either team would trade its player.  For anyone.

Like the McCarthy-Danks-Masset trade, which was made a year ago tomorrow, this is one that’s sure to draw skepticism from fans of both teams at the outset.  Count on a lot of "Why would we do that?" calls into the talk shows.  For me, that question bears a lot more scrutiny if I were a Reds fan.  I understand the imminence of Jay Bruce’s big league career, but there were ways to find room for both Hamilton and Bruce in that lineup.

The 24-year-old Volquez, in his six seasons in the Rangers system, saw his identity change from Julio Reyes to Edison Volquez to Edinson Volquez.  But Hamilton, age 26, has undergone a far more striking series of transformations in his career.

The top pick in the 1999 draft out of a North Carolina high school, Hamilton — who was considered every bit the lock that Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. were considered coming out of high school — hit .347/.378/.593 in the Appalachian League that summer and followed it with a .302/.348/.476 campaign that earned him co-MVP recognition in the South Atlantic League in 2000.  The 6’4", 200-pound specimen went into the 2001 season as baseball’s top prospect, featuring five plus tools (including a throwing arm that had fired 95-mph fastballs off his high school mound), production to match, and game instincts that were ahead of his years.  The only debate was how long it would take Hamilton to get to Tampa Bay.

But that’s when the decline began.   

One of those declines that finds the word "demons" invoked a bunch.

The first dose of adversity actually came on July 31, 2000, when Hamilton tore cartilage in his right knee chasing a fly ball, causing him to miss the final month of that season and succumb to arthroscopic surgery.  He’d apparently recovered in time for spring training 2001 but was in a pickup truck with his parents on the final day of February when it was struck by a dump truck that ran a red light, injuring Hamilton’s back.  Recurring back problems and a torn quadriceps limited him to an unproductive 100 regular season at-bats (.200/.250/.290) in 2001. 

Limited to DH duties in 2002, Hamilton hit a sturdy .303/.359/.507 for High A Bakersfield, driving in 44 runs in 56 games (with one of his nine home runs traveling a reported 549 feet), but he tore his rotator cuff in July and missed the rest of the year.  Whether he hurt his shoulder on a now-legendary throw he made from the Bakersfield warning track, nailing a runner at the plate, is unknown.   

Back in camp in 2003 and having been added to the 40-man roster over the winter, Hamilton was apparently ready physically to get back on a fast track to the big leagues.  But days into spring training, after showing up late for a couple workouts early in camp, Hamilton was sent home by manager Lou Piniella and, shortly thereafter, he began to no-show workouts altogether.  On March 23, he left the team for undisclosed off-the-field reasons.

Early in May, Hamilton resurfaced to work out with the Devil Rays’ AA Orlando club, insisting that he didn’t have a drug problem and had been away simply to take care of some personal issues.  Nine days later, however, he disappeared again, and Tampa Bay announced that he would take personal leave for the remainder of the year.  He did show up briefly to work out with AAA Durham in August, but never did get on the field in 2003.   

In February 2004, MLB suspended Hamilton, initially for 30 days, and fined him for multiple violations of its drug policy.  At least two more failed drug tests within that 30-day period (according to the St. Petersburg Times) led MLB to extend Hamilton’s suspension to a full year.  He would miss his second straight season in 2004.

And his third straight in 2005, due to additional violations.

In November 2005, Tampa Bay designated Hamilton for assignment, and the troubled outfielder with the can’t-miss tools slid through waivers, unclaimed by 29 organizations that weren’t willing to devote so much as a 40-man roster spot to him.   

And that’s because of what began to surface as facts underlying the "personal issues" that Hamilton had been dealing with.

The teenager reportedly spent a lot of his down time during his injury-marred 2001 season at a Florida tattoo parlor, where he not only got 26 tattoos over the year but was also introduced to recreational drugs, according to an interview he gave ESPN in 2004.   

Hamilton began to abuse crack cocaine and prescription anti-anxiety medications.  There was alcohol, too.  A reported eight stints in drug rehab and three suicide attempts would follow over the next few years.  The question as to whether Hamilton would ever get his career back on track gave way to much bigger questions.   

But he’s been clean, he says, since October 2005.

In June 2006, eight months into Hamilton’s sobriety, MLB lifted his suspension.  Tampa Bay kept him in extended spring training for about a month and then assigned the 25-year-old to the New York-Penn League in July.  He was playing against players four years younger, but then again Hamilton hadn’t played in a game since his rotator cuff tear four years earlier, while everyone else had been competing.  It’s a strong indication of the ridiculous natural talent that he has that he was able to compete at all, after going through such an extended layoff, not to mention overcoming what he had to overcome in those four years.

After the June 2006 activation Hamilton appeared in 15 games with the Hudson Valley Renegades, the first of which was on Independence Day.  He flew out in the first inning, batting third as the club’s DH, and hit an opposite-field double in his next at-bat, scoring on a single.  He would finish at .260/.327/.360 in his 50-at-bat run, but more important than the production was that he showed up every day, flashing the sick ability that had somehow survived Hamilton’s self-destructive behavior.  That is, until another knee injury — this time the left — that ended his season late in July and led to August surgery.

Why the Devil Rays didn’t put Hamilton back on the 40-man roster last winter is a question they’re probably tired of answering.  Surely it was largely a function of an organization that was exhausted, tired of being disappointed so many times by a singular talent that was supposed to lead its club to prominence and keep it there.  Tampa Bay had Hamilton back in uniform and back on the field, an achievement to be sure, but putting him back on the roster was not something the club was prepared to do.  He’d slid through waivers a year earlier.  The Devil Rays probably figured his 50 at-bats in short-season ball weren’t enough to change other clubs’ minds 12 months later.

But the Reds’ manager in 2006 was Jerry Narron, and the club’s video coordinator was his brother Johnny Narron.  Jerry knew Hamilton well, through Johnny, who had coached Hamilton as a teenager in North Carolina.  They convinced Reds GM Wayne Krivsky to take a low-risk, Rule 5 shot on Hamilton last December, and Krivsky not only bought into the idea but made sure no other team would thwart the plan.  The Reds sat at number 15 in the draft but paid the Cubs to take him for them with the third overall pick.

Hamilton led Cincinnati in spring training at-bats, and what he did with them was stunning.  After a four-year absence from the game, he not only proved that his knee was sound and that his skills and his timing hadn’t atrophied, but he also showed that the player that Tampa Bay gave $4 million to as a high school grad in 1999 could still produce.  Hamilton hit .403/.457/.556 and made the Reds squad.

One of the decisions Cincinnati made was that Hamilton wouldn’t be handed meal money before road trips like his teammates.  Johnny Narron would be in charge of it, parceling the cash out as needed.

Hamilton made his big league debut on Opening Day 2007, pinch-hitting for reliever Kirk Saarloos in the bottom of the eighth inning of a game Cincinnati led, 5-1, against the Cubs.  As Hamilton was announced, Chicago manager Lou Piniella — a key character in the Hamilton backstory, of course — lifted right-handed reliever Michael Wuertz and inserted lefthander Will Ohman.  A 22-second standing ovation erupted as Hamilton stepped up.  ("The crowd stood and cheered me for what seemed like forever.  It was the best sound I’ve ever heard.")   

The first pitch Hamilton saw was low and outside.  The second one he lined to left, where Matt Murton made a sliding catch to rob him of a hit.

Hamilton’s first start came on April 10, and in it he would get that first big league hit, a two-run home run off Arizona righthander Edgar Gonzalez.

That began a season of highlights for Hamilton, who was the Reds’ primary center fielder but also saw action on both corners.  He hit .292/.368/.554 (including .314/.391/.637 against righthanders) with 19 home runs and 47 RBI in just 298 at-bats, a total that was limited due to several physical issues.  Gastroenteritis cost him two weeks in May and June.  A right wrist sprain sidelined him for five weeks in July and August.  He missed time at the end of the season with a sore hamstring.   

Hamilton’s versatility offensively was underscored by the fact that he appeared in every spot in the Reds lineup, hitting leadoff more than anywhere else.  He reached base at .411 or higher in three different months.  He slugged at least .609 in three different months.  His ratio of a home run for every 15.7 at-bats in 2007 was 10th-best in baseball among players with at least his number of at-bats.  His left-handed swing could be a perfect fit for the jet stream and the porch in Arlington.   

It’s not often that a player is a candidate for both Rookie of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year in his sport, but Hamilton was unquestionably both in 2007.   

Hamilton wrote an article for ESPN about his incredible off-the-field story.  You should read it.   

Although Texas now has four guys capable of playing center field on the big league roster (Hamilton, Milton Bradley, Marlon Byrd, and David Murphy), Hamilton goes into camp as the starter there, without question.  But his game should certainly play on a corner in a couple years if Julio Borbon or Engel Beltre push their way into the picture.

And I love the idea, as I’ve dreamed repeatedly in this space for years, of having three center fielders patrolling the Rangers Ballpark outfield together.  Add the fact that the starting outfield could boast three plus arms — Hamilton is possibly a top 10 thrower in the game — and all of a sudden Texas has a chance to change the way opposing runners behave.  That’s a really good thing.

Having that sort of depth and versatility in the outfield — while it’s still far from the best outfield in the league — is a positive considering that Hamilton and Bradley in particular are health risks.  Nobody will need to play 160 times.

Concerned that Hamilton couldn’t stay healthy in 2007?  Valid to question that.  Focus on the fact that he played in only 15 professional baseball games from 2003 through 2006, and was then asked to ramp up to 128 in 2007 (counting spring training and a brief minor league rehab stint).  But of course, that cuts both ways.  The hope is that he’ll have more stamina in 2008.

It would also help if he were to pull that .222/.296/.292 against lefthanders up.  That alone should mean more games played.  (For what it’s worth, he hit Class A lefties better than righties in 2001 and 2002.)

Concerned about Hamilton’s age?  Sure, you’d rather have him at age 22 than 26, but consider this: Travis Hafner got his first extended big league look (291 at-bats) in 2003, when at age 26 he hit .254/.327/.485 with 14 home runs and 40 RBI for Cleveland.  Hamilton went .292/.368/.554 with 19 homers and 47 RBI in his 298-at-bat season last year, at age 26.  Hafner became a star the next season, when at age 27 he hit .311/.410/.583 with 28 home runs and 109 RBI in 482 at-bats.  Can Hamilton make the same leap in 2008?  Bill James thinks so.   

If you’re a James believer, get this: He projects Hamilton to hit .305/.382/.598 in 410 at-bats in 2008, with 31 home runs and 71 RBI (which I suppose was based on him leading off for a National League team, a role that has to depress RBI projections a bit).   

And this: James projects only seven players to have a higher OPS than Hamilton in 2008 — Barry Bonds, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, and Miguel Cabrera.  Among those whom James projects Hamilton to out-OPS: Prince Fielder, Matt Holliday, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, Adam Dunn, Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson, Grady Sizemore.

And Hafner.

By now you might be asking yourself the same question that dogs me about this trade: Why is Cincinnati doing this?

We all know the promise that Volquez has.  But the bottom line, from a Reds standpoint, is they’re trading a potential star who makes the league minimum and is under club control for five more years in exchange for a pitcher who is 3-11, 7.20 in the big leagues.  Does that make sense?

Now, if Cincinnati were retrenching and looking at the trade as a 26-yr-old for a 24-yr-old as the club builds for a couple years down the road, that’s one thing.  But the Reds’ activity this winter (hiring Dusty Baker, giving huge money to Francisco Cordero, sniffing around on Erik Bedard) sure seems to suggest that they want to win now.  So why would they trade such a valuable, integral piece like Hamilton unless (1) they fear he won’t repeat 2007 or (worse) that he’ll fail to keep his past demons buried or (2) they think Volquez is about to win 17 games?

And why wasn’t there another team offering them more than Volquez and Herrera?

A similar question was surely asked by fans and media when Florida traded Josh Beckett (drafted immediately after Hamilton in 1999, incidentally) to Boston in 2005 for a package keyed by shortstop Hanley Ramirez, a top prospect coming off a relatively disappointing second tour through AA (.271/.335/.385).  Ramirez was the player the Marlins wanted, and when he was made available, a deal got done.  They knew what they were doing.

Maybe Volquez is that player for the Reds, the guy they’ve keyed on through this process of seeing what they can get for Hamilton.

After the breakthrough 2005 season that took Volquez from Class A to Texas, a disappointing big league showing in 2006 led the Rangers to send him back to make the same progression that he’d made two years earlier.  Statistically, 2007 didn’t start very well, but the 0-4, 7.13 mark Volquez posted in Bakersfield was far less important than the commitment the righthander made to the organization’s effort to rebuild him.  After a promotion he went 8-1, 3.55 for Frisco and then 6-1, 1.41 for Oklahoma (his one loss and one no-decision were both 1-0 RedHawk losses).   

Despite the poor start with the Blaze, Volquez held minor league hitters to a .190 average for the year, second lowest among minor league starters to the Yankees’ Ian Kennedy.  Volquez was back in Texas in September, going 2-1, 4.50 in six starts, showing far greater command than he had in his first two Texas stints and reviving a lot of the promise that he seemed to squander in 2006.

Volquez didn’t hit rock bottom in the way that Hamilton did, but strictly in a baseball sense, it was a pretty big deal.  His comeback in 2007 was far less heralded than Hamilton’s, and surely less unlikely, but there’s no question that what he was able accomplish on the mound last season, confronted with a challenge that many players would have considered demeaning, was extremely impressive.   

Impressive enough that Cincinnati decided that adding Volquez was worth giving Josh Hamilton up.

I wrote yesterday that I figured the Reds would insist on a second player like Taylor Teagarden to make this deal.  I underestimated how much they valued Volquez.  According to Tom Hicks: "When I blessed the trade, the other owner didn’t want to do the deal . . . we had to sweeten it up because [Hamilton] was their most popular player."  Which suggests there was a moment, perhaps, when Cincinnati was open to a one-for-one deal.

The sweetener was Herrera, a fan favorite himself because he’s smaller than most of us and has only slightly more velocity, yet gets hitters out and consistently makes them look silly doing so with a dizzying array of changeups.  A year and a half after drafting the 5’7" lefthander out of the University of New Mexico in the 45th round, Texas was able to close a major trade by including him.  That’s an outstanding draft success, spearheaded by area scout Rick Schroeder’s vocal recommendation.  In his two pro seasons, Herrera’s record is 11-5, 2.65 with three saves, and an impressive ratio of 142 strikeouts to 37 walks in 122.1 innings, with just four home runs surrendered and nearly two groundouts for every flyout.

The 23-year-old, a product of Odessa Permian High School, will pitch in the big leagues, and will probably have a couple very good years.  Think Erasmo Ramirez.

My thoughts when first digesting this trade wandered to Mark Connor, Scott Servais, Rick Adair, Mike Anderson, Terry Clark, and Andy Hawkins, wondering whether their own initial instinct was disappointment that Volquez, their prize 2007 pupil, had been shipped away to wear someone else’s uniform, or instead if they’re feeling good about the unconventional plan they engineered for Volquez and his growth through that process to the point that Texas has now acquired a young everyday centerpiece for him, something they absolutely could not have gotten done nine months ago.

It’s a scary deal.  Is there something we don’t know about Hamilton?  (Said Jon Daniels at yesterday’s press conference: "We’ve done as much homework on this guy as we’ve ever had on anybody."  That reportedly included conversations with Jerry Narron to get his assessment of Hamilton.)  Do the Reds think his past makes him susceptible to further injury, even if there’s no concern about him staying sober?  (The Rangers insisted on an extensive physical, which Hamilton passed yesterday, before they would agree to the deal.)  Could Volquez go win 16 a year for Cincinnati, just as former Rangers farmhand Aaron Harang is doing?  Surely the Reds don’t have a better bead on what Volquez is and will be than the Rangers do.

Despite having upside to be much more, Volquez was penciled in as the Rangers’ number four or number five starter going into camp.  He’ll be the same in Cincinnati.  Will Reds pitching coach **** Pole (in spite of the track record Baker has with the long-term fortunes of young pitchers) be able to take the next step with Volquez and turn him into Fausto Carmona?  Or is he instead the next Ramon Ortiz?  (Surely his worst-case scenario is closer to Ortiz than to Robinson Tejeda.)

Or is Volquez a possibility to be spun to Baltimore in a package for Bedard?  If that happens, good.  I’d love to see Bedard out of the American League, and particularly not in Seattle.

As for Hamilton, he arrives in Texas not only as the club’s starting center fielder, but not inconceivably this team’s best player.  The annual assumption that the Rangers are pitching-thin and heavy in bats simply isn’t true right now.  Texas lacks offense, and as stated at the outset of this report, the weakest of the weak spots is in the outfield, where there wasn’t a sure thing on the big league roster and no player on the farm threatening to compete for a starting spot anytime soon.

Hamilton is no sure thing, either, given his track record through 2006, a season that ended with the Devil Rays essentially inviting the rest of the league to take him off their hands.

But I’d rather have him than any center fielder who was on the market this winter.  Give me Hamilton for Volquez and Herrera over Torii Hunter for $90 million and a second-round pick.

Ask yourself this: given the choice between Hamilton and Volquez, which player do Billy Beane and Dave Dombrowski and Mark Shapiro take?

But regardless of how you answer, there’s more texture involved here.  What Daniels appears to be saying with this move is not only that this team’s offense is a greater need area than the rotation right now, but also that he thinks that the franchise, in the long run, will be better able to withstand the loss of a high-ceiling arm like Volquez than to go forward with the collection of outfielders in the system.

In other words, maybe Eric Hurley, Kasey Kiker, Matt Harrison, Luis Mendoza, A.J. Murray, Doug Mathis, Armando Galarraga, Josh Rupe, Thomas Diamond, and Omar Poveda, not to mention Michael Main, Blake Beavan, Tommy Hunter, Neftali Feliz, Fabio Castillo, Zach Phillips, and Wilmer Font, make dealing Volquez tolerable, even in the eyes of someone who thinks he has more upside than anyone else on that list.  Maybe the analysis differs if Jacoby Ellsbury is here rather than John Mayberry Jr.  But maybe not.  The point is that the pitching depth on the farm, which is as healthy as it’s been here in a long time, maybe ever, facilitated this trade.

If Hamilton is healthy — on the field and off — he starts (and possibly stars) for just about every team in baseball, and it’s five years before he can become a free agent.   

That profile makes this trade hard to pass up.   

But, again, it also makes you wonder why the Reds would move him at all.

The added aspect to this trade that energizes me is that my team’s general manager is taking risks.  The Rangers aren’t just one move away, however shrewd, from being a World Series contender.  There’s lots of work to be done.  Jon Daniels, to his credit and to our benefit, hasn’t chosen the path of least riskiness since the unfortunate January 2006 trade with the Padres.  The last thing this club needs is for its general manager to get reticent, to ease his foot off the pedal.   

I trust Daniels’s baseball instincts and I trust his team of advisors, and I consider it a positive when he demonstrates, as with this trade, that he continues to trust both as well.  Gunshy is not welcome around here.

There’s a real chance this move could set the franchise back, which makes me nervous.  But there’s also a real chance it could accelerate things by not only filling a need spot but doing so with a potential star who could be here for a long time.

The scariest thing about a trade like this one — for both teams — is that the spectrum of what Edinson Volquez and Josh Hamilton could be in 2008 and 2009 and 2012 is massively wide.  Both players are sickeningly skilled but had shown themselves to be unpredictable, if not undependable — until huge resurgences in 2007.

Both Texas and Cincinnati are selling high in this deal.  Only time will tell whether they were buying smart.

 

==============================

ADDENDUM:  If I had seen this before writing this morning’s report, I probably could have saved myself more than 4,100 words.

A reader who spoke to Josh Hamilton yesterday said that the outfielder commented to him that “hitting homers is fun, but my favorite thing is throwing someone out at home.”

Love that.  My kind of player.

– Jamey

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

2 Comments

This was a good post. I believe that the Rangers should limit Hamilton to around 130-135 games because of past injuries, etc. It is also the first season he will be in Texas, so they should be delicate with the change of scenery with his situation.

http://statisticianmagician.mlblogs.com/

Can’t wait to see how this pans out. I like our chances of smelling like a rose here. Hamilton’s upside is huge!

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