The Josh Hamilton Problem

The Texas Rangers Major League Baseball club has a problem.

It has, specifically, a "Josh Hamilton" problem. We'll call it "The Josh Hamilton Problem".

If you're a Rangers fan, you know what a "Josh Hamilton" problem, a.k.a. a "Josh problem" is. Richard Durrett wrote an article about it for ESPN in 2012. Here are some Josh Hamilton problems:

"Ocular Keratitis" kept him out of the lineup for a week in 2012. That's when downing too much caffeine dries your corneas out.

Josh had a period in which he couldn't hit during day games. The problem was his baby blue eyes reflecting light the wrong way. He tried sunglasses and eye drops. No word on what finally solved the problem.

He quit chewing tobacco at one point, causing a slump. Even when he broke and strained things out of pure hard effort (like Rangers great Rusty Greer, Hamilton is no stranger to the outfield wall), he usually broke or strained the WRONG something.

Early in 2015, Josh was traded, two years through a five-year-$125 million deal, from Los Angeles back to the Texas Rangers. While the specific details have never actually been released, front office leaks and certain public details have confirmed that Los Angeles is paying practically ALL of Josh's contract through the final year; 2017.

Free Left Fielder. Former MVP. Freakish natural talent. Slightly used and abused. Mostly by himself... but still. 

There was no small amount of grousing about this trade. It had been clear from the start of his time in Anaheim that Jon Daniels's refusal to hand over buckets of money to Hamilton was prescient. In 2013 Josh produced at half the level he had in 2012. In 2014, he was about 50% worse again (we're talking overall value here, by the way). He ended 2014 hurt, and while recovering he relapsed with cocaine and alcohol. That's how he ended up back in Texas.

The Hamilton acquisition for left field displaced some potentially promising talent, and seemed to guarantee a position for someone who wasn't actually perceived to be either reliable or even all that good anymore. Yet when he returned to the field, after many dazzling smiles and a muddled apology for hurtful words, he was met with cheers. So many cheers.

Certainly he was still Josh Hamilton, but he was home. He was OUR Josh Hamilton.

And he mostly performed to expectations. Josh was hurt when he got here, hurt at the end of the season, and hurt twice during the season. Josh appeared in 50 games, and batted .253/.291/.441. Bizarrely, his ISO was the highest it had been since 2012, .188. He hit 8 home runs in his fifty games. Two or three of them took the lead or won the game directly.

At the end of 2015, Josh hurt his knee. He had it operated on, hurt it again, had it operated on AGAIN, but it still hurts. The most recent news is that there really isn't anything that can be done at this point. Josh is trying some alternative treatments, but he acknowledges that the knee is what it is. It's going to hurt, he just has to figure out if he can manage the pain.

Dare we think it, if he can still play.

So now the Texas Rangers have a Josh Hamilton Problem. The Josh Hamilton Problem is that he's here, on the Rangers 25-man roster. And he will be all this year and next, barring stays on the 60-Day Disabled List. What do you do with Josh Hamilton?

Let's ask some questions.

Can Josh Hamilton still play baseball at the Major League level?

We don't know. Josh may not even know. I bet Jon Daniels has an answer, but he sure as heck isn't gonna share it with us until AFTER the Josh Hamilton Problem is resolved.

Even if he can, does it matter?

OK, we have to break this one down.

Can Josh Hamilton play left field anymore?

If his knee is what he says it is, that's probably a really bad idea. Let's go with "no". You could still project Hamilton to be a platoon Left Fielder right up to the point that he said the knee can't actually be fixed, he just has to learn to live with it. Even now, a day or two after I started writing this, Josh has informed the media that he's "pain free" and will hit the field this week. But he was "pain free" only a few weeks ago, before tweaking the knee again so badly that he was on crutches. There has been no structural repair of any kind since then, only rest and some non-traditional stem cell and plasma treatments. Maybe he could still be a platoon left fielder, but Texas has already said they like the idea of a three-man bench to start the year. And even when Josh is back, supposedly by May, is a spare left-handed bat limited to left field defensively the best use of your bench slot? Still, here's an optimistic tick-mark:  IF Josh Hamilton can manage his knee, and IF Ian Desmond (who isn't going anywhere for a while) can cover Center Field, then Josh is your fourth outfielder. Keep in mind, I'm not saying this is the BEST use of resources, just a plausible one.

Normally, when a guy has bum knees he doesn't play the field.  But for sanity's sake we'll assume he can learn to run on the bum knee; so he's a Designated Hitter. And now we have a Stack Overflow, because the DH buffer is full. Prince Fielder is the primary DH and backup first baseman, Mitch Moreland will be in the lineup if he's hitting, and Adrian Beltre will need more at-bats at DH any minute now. And then one of the bench bats will probably be another right-handed bat to substitute for one of the left-handers, which Texas has several of. So the only reason you need Josh Hamilton as a DH is if there's reason to believe he's going to be much better than any of these other options. Or if you trade Prince Fielder.

So, DH and.........

Oops. We just used up Josh's only remaining natural position. However, even if it's just for fun, keep track of the two big IFs. IF Josh Hamilton can only DH, and IF Prince Fielder gets traded, then you can use Hamilton as your full-time DH. The biggest thing this would accomplish would be the salary dump, honestly; Josh isn't likely to be as good as Fielder was last year... but Fielder could decline, which you really don't want because what you're after is to dump as much of his salary as you can, and Hamilton could improve which could actually make him more valuable than Fielder.

HEADACHE.

So we'll tick-mark that: If Fielder gets traded, the Rangers MIGHT have a roster spot for Hamilton.

Josh Hamilton being on the roster for the purpose of playing a position for the Rangers comprises two big IFS no matter what and a whole lotta HEADACHE figuring out how to do it.

Let's move on to managing the pipeline of talent.

Here's a list of the players that could also fill Josh's roster spot:

Ryan Rua - 4C Right-handed bat.
Justin Ruggiano - All 3 OF positions and 3B Right-handed bat.
James Jones - Having a good spring, but mostly just runs.
Nomar Mazarra - High floor OF, could start next year.
Lewis Brinson - High ceiling CF, needs to show consistency.
Joey Gallo - 3B/OF. ISO is off the charts.

Do you want Hamilton blocking these guys? Sure, some of them won't actually be in Arlington this year; but Hamilton has another year on his contract.

So we could make the argument that, barring player moves and subject to injuries, the only reason to keep Hamilton on the roster is because he's under contract. And that's not WEIRD, but it sure complicates things.

Clearly the best thing to do would be to just release Hamilton.

But that's a problem, too.

.........

In the 2012-2013 off-season, General Manager Jon Daniels traded fan-favorite, team-leader, former-middle-infielder/utility-infielder/DH Michael Young to the Philadelphia Phillies. At the beginning of 2012 Young was coming off of his best year since 2006, although it wasn't much of an outlier against his recent production. In 2012, however, Young was brutal. His steadily-declining defense was even worse, and his saving-grace bat suffered dramatically. Additionally, there was some standing "bad blood" between Young and Daniels; as Young was increasingly frustrated with the Rangers moving younger players into his position and asking him to move. There was also perceived to be pressure from the front office to bench Young in favor of other players even in the Utility role.

Despite the poor performance, the actual trade of Young was a shockwave through the fan base. While the move could be defended statistically, fans had trouble believing that Texas had actually traded away Michael Young. Sensible, or not, the trade brought wide-spread condemnation on Daniels and Rangers ownership. When Young returned to the Rangers a year later to retire, Jon Daniels said the trade had been a mistake; a move he wouldn't make if he had it to do over again. He cited clubhouse chemistry and Young's leadership of the team as qualities that he though would be easier to make up for than they were.

Josh is a polarizing player. Booed on his way out of Arlington, cheered on his return. One Angels blogger was so happy to see him leave L.A. that he gleefully wrote a highly-personal, profanity-laced attack on Hamilton that got him banned from the website. HE WAS THAT HAPPY TO SEE HAMILTON LEAVE. There are Rangers fans right now that would be tempted to do the same if Hamilton were traded. Or released.

And "right now" would probably be the time to do it. Hamilton is hurt. Again. He never got to hit a home run in Spring Training for fans and the sports press to fawn over that would make it a bit confusing for more casual fans to grasp why Hamilton was gone. No one is thinking about him "right now". He's just another Ranger headed for the Disabled List.

But there are problems, even if a decent plurality of Ranger fandom may not see it that way.

Back to the questions:

What happens if Josh Hamilton is traded?

Ok, that's not a good question. Josh Hamilton can't be traded.

Jon Daniels: "Hey, we've got this guy whose only real home is in Arlington but we can't have him clogging up our 25-man roster. He's free but under contract this year and next, and if you're lucky he can DH 80 - 120 games. Extreme power hitter, but falls off to left-handed-platoon-designated-hitter-levels if he's not 100% in balance. Which is most of the time."

GM on the other end of the line:  ".................." CLICK. CALL ENDED.

Josh Hamilton can't be traded. How much does losing a 25-man roster spot cost if the player can be put on the DL a lot? I can tell you that, because a transaction like this happened with the Rangers last year. It costs a Major-League-Ready pitcher with a middle-of-the-rotation-ceiling. That was, reportedly, how much the Rangers paid to get Matt Harrison, who had just re-injured his back after two years of recovery for back problems, off their 25-man/DL roster. Of course, Harrison also had a reputation as a hard worker, a great teammate, no history of drug or alcohol abuse, and no known human being would be fired for hating him.

Just to be safe, we'll say it this way:  For all intents and purposes, Josh Hamilton can not be traded.

What would happen if Josh Hamilton were released?

Again, there is a plurality of Rangers fandom that would be thrilled if Josh were just cut. Take a hike, don't come back, go be your own problem.

Would Texas fans be as upset about Josh going away as they were about Michael Young, or Ian Kinsler, or (most appropriately) Mike Napoli? Probably not. Even the most casual fans know Josh is hurt and broken. But that's the crux of the Josh Hamilton problem.

Baseball is made of stories, almost as much as stats. A lot of you will say it's the other way around, by a large margin, and that's fine. I don't begrudge that opinion. Josh Hamilton has a story. Constantly recovering addict, fallen and redeemed Christian, one of the biggest hambones out there. He's a goofy, bone-headed doof one minute, and some semblance of one of the most amazingly gifted baseball players ever the next.

The Texas Rangers have many stories. I'm not going to give examples, but the one we're interested in is this: Texas is developing a reputation as a club that will work with recovering addicts and players needing special physical or mental recovery regimens. They will seek out support, they will accommodate special needs, they will construct an environment tailored for the recovering addict/baseball player to have a chance to get well and thrive. The Rangers have done it with Hamilton twice, there are some very quiet rumblings that they tried to do it with Tommy Hanson, who wasn't willing to work within the Rangers rules (to be 100% clear:  this is a RUMOR, it just makes a bit of sense), and they are now doing it with Matt Bush, the former-top prospect infielder-now-relief pitcher who just got out of prison for a DUI hit-and-run.

When you're talking about something like drug addiction, it's uncomfortable to look at things cynically. But, the Texas Rangers have found not only a market inefficiency in dealing with recovering addicts, they've also found some really marketable stories. Bush has allegedly been clean for years, and his fastball sits at 98mph. If he closes out a game for Texas this year, he'll be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

What happens to that story if Texas cuts Hamilton tomorrow? Not because he relapsed (strike three, Josh!) but because they need the roster space?

"Sorry about that addiction stuff and the personal problems, but we both knew what this was from the beginning...despite all the talk about helping an old friend and bringing you home and..."

Yeah. PR nightmare.

And before you start; yes, I know a lot of you are saying "Who ******** cares about the story? He's just taking up space!"

I get it. I respect that opinion. It's valid. We're in baseball to win, not for group therapy. It just so happens that baseball *is* therapy for a lot of people. And a lot of fans *like* the stories as much as winning.

My point is that no matter what you, the person who disagrees thinks, to a lot of fans, cutting Hamilton would be like kicking a puppy with a broken leg because it can't get out of the way fast enough.

If you're the General Manager of the Texas Rangers, you don't want to get caught on video kicking a puppy with a broken leg.

And that... is why the Texas Rangers have a "Josh Hamilton Problem."

He can't play.

He can't stay.

He can't go.

"Guys, it’s me, it’s Josh – it’s going to be something weird."