The playoffs are ongoing, but the off-season has already begun for all but eight teams. Josh Hamilton's year is over as well, as the Rangers were eliminated from the postseason in the Wild Card round, and he's likely to be one of the top free agents on the market this off-season. Jon Heyman reported on Tuesday that the Rangers would wait and see if Hamilton's price tag -- in both years and dollars -- would fall to a level they would be comfortable with. How does a team without a starting center fielder, who lost the division for the first time in three years, just let Hamilton walk? Options, and Hamilton's own performance.
The latter first. Hamilton looked primed for an easy Most Valuable Player award back in May, as he had hit 21 homers through 47 games. Triple that game and homer total, and you're talking about one of the five or 10 greatest homer seasons ever, on pace to beat out Roger Maris' AL mark of 61. Instead, Hamilton didn't just fall back to his previous rates, but slipped to a level unknown to him in the majors. From June 1 onward, Hamilton would hit another 22 homers, but overall bat just .245/.322/.487. It wasn't a luck thing, either: his batting average on balls in play was .297, and he struck out nearly 30 percent of the time -- Hamilton, before 2012, punched out just 18 percent of the time. That last bit has far more to do with the numbers than a BABIP that was lower than normal.
Remember, too, that Hamilton plays in the American League's most hitter-friendly environment, and that his line isn't quite as good as the raw data suggests because of it. Case in point: from June 1 onward, Hamilton put together a .261/.340/.511 line at Arlington, and just .229/.304/.464 on the road. Neither is bad, but they aren't $20 million a year good, either, especially when four or five years are attached to that money.
Players slump, and as far as slumps go, Hamilton's was still very productive. But there are a few things here that make retaining him worrisome. This was his age-31 season. That doesn't make him an old man, but most players decline when they're on the wrong side of 30. From age 26 through 31, Hamilton hit .304/.363/.549. It's unlikely he'll be able to replicate that going forward, and this time around, he'll be expecting to make upwards of $20 million per year, rather than the $27 million total he has earned in his six-year career.
The Rangers want to insure themselves against a decline. What if his performance over the last four months of the year, in which all of his numbers across the board slipped, is indicative of his future? He would still be useful, but like many free agents, is searching for money that fits past performance, rather than future. It's difficult to know if Hamilton's 2012 slide was the first step towards him going all Jason Bay on the next team that inks him, or if it was just a bump in the road, and a return to normalcy is imminent. Both are potential options, and that makes signing him long-term, for trucks full of money, a dicey proposition. And that's only when taking his performance on the field into consideration, never mind the past full of drugs and alcohol, issues that are well documented at this point, issues that make Hamilton's free agency a different animal than that of your standard post-30 star.
What do the Rangers do if Hamilton signs elsewhere? Internally, there isn't much to go on. Craig Gentry was second on the Rangers in starts at center, and played 114 games there total thanks to innings as a defensive replacement. He also hit just .304/.367/.392 on the year, and while he hits lefties well, isn't a threat against his fellow righty. That means there likely needs to be an acquisition, either through trade or free agency.
The Rangers reportedly talked to the Red Sox about acquiring both Josh Beckett and Jacoby Ellsbury prior to the trade deadline, but a deal that massive needed to be tabled until the winter. Beckett is now with the Dodgers, but Ellsbury remains. He's a free agent following the 2013 season, and didn't play well after suffering a dislocated shoulder early on in 2012, but was an MVP candidate just one year ago. The Rangers have the money to invest in Ellsbury should he return to form, and the prospects to pay for the acquisition of him from the Red Sox, should Boston be willing to talk. Like Hamilton, there is risk here, but Elllsbury is also three years younger.
Unlike with Ellsbury, Chris Young hasn't been linked to Texas. But he could be on the trade block, as the Diamondbacks attempt to make room for their younger (and cheaper) outfield options. He's under contract for $8.5 million in 2013, and has an $11M club option for 2014 -- if the price is right, his bat and exceptional glove could prove very attractive.
If the Rangers want to keep their prospects (or Elvis Andrus, whom the Sox, in need of a shortstop, would likely inquire on), there's still free agency. Michael Bourn is there, and while he lacks Hamilton's bat, he is younger, will be cheaper, and plays an excellent center field. There is Curtis Granderson, should the Yankees decline his option. Angel Pagan is available, and while .288/.338/.440 might not seem amazing, it also came in a pitcher-friendly park in San Francisco. Pagan is only a year younger than Hamilton, but will be exponentially cheaper. There's also Melky Cabrera, though putting him back in center would mean a defensive hit. B.J. Upton might have disappointed relative to expectations, but he's a free agent, and productive regardless.
This is the perfect time for Hamilton to be a free agent in Texas' eyes. They can sit back and see how the market shapes up, do their own window shopping, and get one of many replacements should Hamilton bolt. They'll end up with a center fielder to fill the void, one way or the other -- it might even up being Hamilton once more.