Josh Hamilton and the murkiest crystal ball.

He came up big again last night, flashing the stick and the wheels and the leather, punishing baseballs and fences, doing what he does and doing it in such a way that reminds us, in case we’d forgotten over these last few days or been immunized to it over the last six weeks, that Josh Hamilton’s bag of tricks is deep as it is authoritative, and in some ways almost absurdly and singularly routine.

There’s a very real chance, maybe even a likelihood, that he won’t be a Texas Ranger on November 6.  But that doesn’t mean he won’t be one a month after that.

And you can’t rule out that he’ll get locked up long-term well before the end of the season, either.

Not that there’s a whole lot of reliable indication out there to support any sort of gut feel.

Nolan Ryan said a few days ago that the club and Hamilton haven’t exchanged proposals since the season began and that he didn’t expect the Rangers would have a real shot at signing him before late November or December, meaning after the free agency doors swing wide open and he’s able to test the market and see what it will bear.

On the other hand, Jon Daniels, who said earlier this month that there was nothing new to report on the Hamilton front, said yesterday on local radio that “at the end of the day, I think we’ll get it done — it’s the right fit.”

Hamilton, for his part, has been relatively careful with his comments, though over the winter he played the leverage game by giving the Union repeated sound bite hugs and dismissing the suggestion that he owed Texas anything.

If all of that seems unhelpful, one national story rolled out days after Hamilton’s four-homer game two weeks ago reported that, according to sources, Texas had “reopened negotiations” with the 31-year-old, immediately after which a local report adamantly pointed out that, yes, the club was talking to his agent “regularly [but had] been for months.  That is nothing new.”

And then there’s the handicapping game that so many Rangers fans are insistent on playing — in May — an urge fed dutifully by the media.  Jon Heyman (CBS Sports) ranked the 14 teams that he believes have the best chance to relocate Hamilton in 2013.  Jeff Passan (Yahoo! Sports) ranked 11 such clubs.  To get a sense of how unpredictable all this is, Heyman had two teams in his top five (Milwaukee and Kansas City) that weren’t anywhere on Passan’s list, and Passan had two in his top five (Seattle and San Francisco) completely absent from Heyman’s rundown.
But both make Texas the favorites.

Passan’s final comment was especially interesting: “He’s theirs to lose – or, if you prefer another perspective, they’re his to lose.  The Rangers and Hamilton fit well, sort of like the Cardinals and Albert Pujols did.  And, like the Pujols negotiations, this will come down to just how much Hamilton can separate business and emotion.  Pujols was insulted by St. Louis’ offer.  If the same happens with Hamilton, affinity can turn into spite, love into resentment, happiness into animus.  And odds-on-favorite status into also-ran.”
While Passan felt the Brewers won’t be in the mix at all, Phil Rogers (Chicago Tribune) suggests that club is actually the very best fit, with an aggressive owner, an invested fan base, and the Narron brothers all in place.
Passan had the Blue Jays as the 11th-most likely landing spot for Hamilton, while Heyman didn’t consider Toronto a possibility at all, and yet yesterday morning on his talk show Norm Hitzges had the Blue Jays along with the Nationals as the frontrunners before he talked himself out of those two clubs and everyone else, concluding that Hamilton’s not going anywhere.
But Ben Rogers (ESPN Dallas) disagrees with all of them, tweeting: “If Josh Hamilton is not signed by the end of the season, I do not expect him back.”
All camps seem to agree that there will be little headache over the AAV that Hamilton will command, that instead the point that will be wrestled over is the length of the deal, with some suggesting his agent (with a push from the Union) will be chasing something that fits comfortably in the range set by the seven years Jayson Werth got two winters ago and the nine and ten that Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols landed this past off-season.
But the early returns on Werth and Pujols in particular are two reasons clubs might not share such an optimistic view of what a commitment to the 31-year-old should look like, which sets aside all the added issues that the unique ballplayer presents, issues that led three general managers to tell Passan 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.”
A few of you have asked whether Texas might decide to flip Hamilton this summer in what could be another Mark Teixeira trade.
For one, contending teams don’t trade core players in July.  They just don’t.
On top of that, only other contending teams would be interested in what would be just two months of Hamilton (different from the year and two months Teixeira had until free agency).  Those teams aren’t going to give up useful big leaguers while they try to win in 2012, and even if you were to ignore the first point, Texas would never trade an impact player in a season set up to go beyond 162 without getting something different that would make the active roster stronger.
In addition, the new CBA rules make it so that a team acquiring Hamilton would get zero draft pick compensation if he were to change teams in the winter.  (Only Texas is eligible to get the picks.)  So teams aren’t going to give up as much for a rental player like Hamilton would be as they used to under the previous labor agreement.
Erase the thought from your mind.  Hamilton will finish the season in Texas.  And if he does leave, it will be after Texas makes him a qualifying offer that results in draft pick compensation.
Just about everyone else on the active roster is here to stay in 2012 as well.  I suppose a player like Mitch Moreland or David Murphy or Mark Lowe could be moved with prospects to get a significant upgrade at his position or another on the roster (compare Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter and Pedro Strop a year ago), but that seems farfetched, and what we’re more likely looking at is guys like Cody Buckel, Barret Loux, Justin Grimm, Tanner Scheppers, Chad Bell, Nick Tepesch, Rougned Odor, and Christian Villanueva as the types of players who could be involved in July discussions, and possibly names on a tier beneath those if it’s to simply go get whoever this summer’s Jeff Francoeur will be, or perhaps a proven swing man in the pen who can replace what Texas is losing if Scott Feldman ends up sticking in the rotation for the stretch, for whatever reason (plus, the Rangers are not going to pick up Feldman’s expensive 2013 option).
With this organization you can never rule out something bigger, maybe involving someone like Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke or Shane Victorino or Justin Morneau or Josh Johnson, since, as Ken Rosenthal (Fox Sports) reminds everyone, the Rangers “were No. 1 in Baseball America’s most recent organizational talent rankings and are deep enough in prospects to make practically any move they want.”
Texas will see an unprecedented number of fans flood through the turnstiles this season and surely must be threatening a merchandising best and have that monster TV deal just around the corner.  The Rangers can probably “make practically any move they want” in free agency as well, or in an effort to prevent selected players from ever getting to that market.
They can afford to pay Hamilton whatever it is that other clubs might be willing to pay him.  That doesn’t mean they will, or should.
There’s never been a professional athlete in this market to whom the concept of support system has had greater significance.  For this player more than any other I can think of locally, stability and comfort zone off the field should count for something, even if it doesn’t factor into the Union’s vision for his next deal.  That’s not to say Hamilton owes the Rangers anything, but maybe he owes the Players Association less than he owes himself and his family.  And maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.
But it’s fairly clear that there are all kinds of reasons that Texas shouldn’t want to let Hamilton go and that Hamilton might not want to move his life somewhere else.  Still, there’s a massively important and unusual cost analysis at work for both sides, and unless they match up there will be other teams eager to tap in, maybe with offers packing the baseball business punch of a four-homer night.
What’s he worth?  Probably not as much as he’ll get paid.  Because this is professional sports.  And Josh Hamilton is a really good professional ballplayer, and a brand.
He’s a dynamic, exceptional, crazy-great athlete in a sport that locally has never been healthier, bringing walls down when he’s not firing missiles over them, and while there’s not even a marginally tangible vibe on the when or the where or the how much on the subject of that business issue, at least we have the chance to distract ourselves over the summer and fall with the continuation of the good old days for Josh Hamilton’s current baseball team, led on many nights by the transcendent play of a singularly remarkable player, one who helps win games with his bat and his glove and his legs and his arm and a contract that makes him a Texas Ranger for another five and a half months, at least.

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