- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
A general manager preparing for the offseason recently asked others in his organization what they thought of Josh Hamilton, and of course, the response was nothing but raves for Hamilton as a player. They talked about the damage he can do at the plate, his ability to carry a team, his ridiculous strength. Hamilton leads the majors with 42 homers and 123 RBIs, and it's within the realm of possibility that he'll finish the year with 50 homers and 140 RBIs.
But Hamilton's ability as a hitter is almost a given, so the next question the GM asked might be the more important one, and maybe even the most-asked question of the offseason:
How many years in a contract would you give Hamilton?
If Major League Baseball's contracts were structured like those in the NFL, Hamilton would draw some level of interest from almost all teams on a short-term deal. But baseball contracts are fully guaranteed, unlike NFL contracts, so if Hamilton went into serious regression or had some sort of lingering off-field issues, his next team could be on the hook for years.
The Texas Rangers clearly have their doubts about how long they want to invest in Hamilton, because they are preparing for Plan Bs: They have done background work on Justin Upton, Jacoby Ellsbury and others, knowing they may be in the market for an impact outfielder if somebody outbids them for Hamilton.
"I think they already have a very defined set of parameters on what they want to do with him," an AL official said last week. "I don't think they'll budge from those."
Does that mean they'll offer him a high salary for two years? Three? Four? Hamilton turned 31 in May, and the Rangers have the strongest sense of how much his off-field issues are a day-to-day factor. Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry played together with the Yankees and they both were, by definition, recovering addicts. The Yankees didn't worry about Raines at all; on the other hand, Strawberry's demons lingered.
Where does Hamilton stand? For a team that will be asked to invest $20 million to $25 million annually during the course of a multiyear deal, it's a major consideration.
One executive said earlier this summer: "He's so athletic, and there isn't anything he can't do on a baseball field. But he was out of the game for a long time because of [his substance-abuse problems], and you have to ask, what kind of a toll did that take on his body?"
The potential market for Hamilton is murky. The Los Angeles Dodgers are out, having locked themselves into an outfield of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford (and even before adding Crawford, they had no intention of bidding on Hamilton this winter). The Los Angeles Angels would seem to be a long shot, given their relative glut of OF-DH types: Mike Trout, Mark Trumbo, Vernon Wells, Kendrys Morales. Torii Hunter has expressed a desire to come back, too, and he's a productive player.
The Boston Red Sox have the money to sign Hamilton, having created the payroll flexibility with the Adrian Gonzalez/Josh Beckett/Crawford trade, but it makes no sense for Boston to veer away from pricey contracts on older players -- then immediately dive back into another long-term deal with a player beyond his 30th birthday. Boston is probably out.
The New York Yankees have money to spend, always, but their offseason focus will be on locking up Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, within the confines of the luxury-tax cap (a prospect that could change dramatically if the Yankees don't make the playoffs.) The New York Mets are expected to be very conservative in their player movement this winter, as they wait for the Johan Santana and Jason Bay deals to expire.
The Philadelphia Phillies don't have a lot of payroll flexibility, given their long-term investments in Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. The St. Louis Cardinals' payroll already includes significant obligations to Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday, and available funds will be devoted to pitching.
There are many teams that wouldn't conceive of taking on a massive long-term contract: Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Miami Marlins (who have been in cutback mode after bloating their payroll last winter), Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays.
Milwaukee's focus is on starting pitching. The Houston Astros have money to spend and really could use a marquee name to draw some fans -- as we've seen in the Roger Clemens flirtations -- but to date, the Astros have signaled their intentions to build organically. The Minnesota Twins are paying Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
That leaves the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers. Atlanta has some expiring contracts, with the retirement of Chipper Jones and the impending free agency of Michael Bourn, but its budget hasn't grown beyond the $85 million to $90 million range in years; it's hard to imagine the Braves extending themselves for Hamilton, who would be another left-handed hitter in a lineup that already is heavy in lefties.
If the Nationals have one need, it's for a true center fielder, and given the team's long-term investment in corner outfielders Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper, the pursuit of Hamilton seems highly unlikely.
The Cubs are at the outset of a long-term rebuilding plan and may not be competitive for a couple of years, at least, so paying Hamilton $20 million to $25 million would make little sense other than to provide a Sammy Sosa-like presence for the daily matinees. Keep in mind, too, that team president Theo Epstein has spoken of veering off course in his last years in Boston, when the Red Sox signed players to long-term, big-money deals -- and that last winter, the Cubs never really got serious about Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.
The Giants' future business model is to build around pitching and Buster Posey, and there will be efforts made to get Posey locked up to a long-term deal. As with the Cubs, it's possible for the Giants to find budget space for Hamilton, but the guess here is that if San Francisco has interest in Hamilton, it will be conservative.
The Orioles have made some inroads toward winning back their fans. But manager Buck Showalter places a high value on stability and predictability, so as long as he has an influential voice, signing Hamilton -- who in the last days of the regular season could reach 150 games played for the second time in his career -- wouldn't seem to be his typical choice.
The Mariners could use Hamilton's power, of course, but it's unclear whether Seattle will be in the market for a big-money free agent -- or whether Hamilton would be open to the idea, because a lot of marquee hitters have had no interest in going to Safeco Field.
The White Sox have salary flexibility forthcoming, with the contracts of Jake Peavy and A.J. Pierzynski set to expire. But while Chicago has players in the $12 million to $14 million range in Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn, there has been no indication they are ready to jump into the $20 million to $25 million neighborhood.
Detroit? "They're always the wild card, aren't they?" a GM said.
Yep. And Hamilton could play left field for the Tigers, given Austin Jackson's presence in center field. Only Mike Illitch knows if he'd be willing to give yet another slugger huge dollars, as he did with Fielder last winter.
All it took for Fielder to get a $214 million contract was the sudden and surprising interest of Detroit. All that Pujols needed to get a $248 million deal was the sudden and surprising interest of Angels owner Arte Moreno.
That's all it will take for Hamilton. But there would appear to be a very confined field of potential bidders.
• Chris Carpenter hasn't thrown an inning for the Cardinals this year, but so long as he's wearing a uniform, he will be an emotional leader. In a game not long ago, Yadier Molina was blasted in a home-plate collision by the Pirates' Josh Harrison, and later in the game, Jake Westbrook threw at Harrison. When Rod Barajas yelled angrily at the St. Louis dugout, it was Carpenter -- standing at the front of the dugout, chin out -- who answered the loudest.
That's who he is, that's who he always will be, and keep in mind that as Carpenter comes back, he won't have to ease his way back into the rotation. After throwing a 90-pitch simulated game Saturday, he'll be prepared to throw 100 pitches when he starts Friday.
• Bobby Valentine made a decision that generated a lot of response within the Red Sox organization Sunday.
• Had some early morning travel today; we'll be back with a full linked-up blog Tuesday.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney writes that with Josh Hamilton entering the free agent market, it's difficult to predict who'll be willing to invest long-term in the slugger. But, as we saw with Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, Hamilton needs only one team to believe.