A (Half-Hearted) (Kinda Sorta) Defense Of The Josh Hamilton Trade

BALTIMORE, MD - Josh Hamilton #10 of the Texas Rangers hits a two-run home run in the seventh inning during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Hamilton hit four home runs during the game to become the 16th player in MLB history to make the accomplishment. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Reds fans are wondering if the Josh Hamilton trade will overtake the Frank Robinson trade as the worst in franchise history. It might yet. But that doesn't mean it was an awful idea at the time.

Since joining the Texas Rangers, Josh Hamilton has won an MVP, helped his team win two pennants, and had one of the greatest games in baseball history.

After joining the Cincinnati Reds, Edinson Volquez had one good year, three injury-plagued years, and he's actively in the middle of a four-pitch walk right now, even if you're reading this at midnight. He finds ways.

So, as you'd expect following Hamilton's four-homer game, there are some disgruntled Reds fans out there, openly wondering where the Josh Hamilton trade ranks on the Reds' all-time worst list. It's up there. It's probably not Milt Pappas-for-Frank Robinson bad, but it's up there.

But there's a difference between trades that look miserable in retrospect and bad trades. When the A's traded Tim Hudson away, they received Dan Meyer, Charles Thomas, and Juan Cruz. Meyer blew his shoulder out, Thomas never did anything close to his fluky .288/.368/.445 rookie season, and Cruz was terrible. Looked like a reasonable trade at the time. Miserable in retrospect.

The 2004 Mets were eight games back in the NL East. They traded their best prospect -- and the #12 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America -- for Victor Zambrano, whose lone fault as a pitcher was that he wasn't very good at pitching. Horrible at the time, even worse in retrospect.

The Josh Hamilton trade is, unquestionably, the former. It looks bad now. It looks really, really bad. But it was a bold and inspired move to trade him. No, really. Take the name out of the analysis and revisit the scenario.

Player X missed three years because of drug problems. Before that, his highest minor-league level was AA, where he received fewer than 100 at-bats. Upon arriving to the majors after three years off, he hit like an All-Star, if not an MVP, while he was healthy.

That's a lot of information packed into three sentences. You have personal problems, injury problems, and 298 at-bats that suggest Hamilton is such a preternatural talent, he can just show up in the majors at 26 and be one of the best players in the majors a) after an extended layoff, and b) without ever facing pitchers in the upper minors. There are two options.

Option #1
Assume that this player is one of the most gifted players to ever live. Where even most Hall of Famers need to ply their trades in the minor leagues, learning how to hit, figure that this guy can hit major-league pitching after a three-year layoff from A-ball. Keep him at all costs.

Option #2
Assume that's the best year he's ever going to have and see if you can wheedle your way into the hearts of one of the teams who'd choose Option #1.

The Reds didn't buy the first option. And even after accounting for the physical talent that made Hamilton the first-overall pick, how can you blame them? Hamilton had one of the most unexpected seasons in major-league history. It might have been a good idea to shop him even if he didn't have the back story. Players who arrive on the scene that quickly are good candidates for some mean-spirited regression. And his line against lefties that year -- .222/.296/.292 -- hinted that there was a raw, raw player buried underneath the flashy exterior. Maybe pitchers were just a couple hundred at-bats away from making him miserable.

In retrospect: Whoops! Turns out he was really that good, and that the Mickey Mantle comparisons he was tagged with as an amateur weren't crazy after all. Whoops! And that top pitching prospect they got -- good enough to finish fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting when he wasn't a rookie -- turned out to be as erratic and injury-prone as the young-pitcher stereotype. It goes down in history as one of the great whoops! trades of all time.

Looks like that skinny kid with six career minor-league home runs had the potential to be one of the best power hitters ever. Whoops! Looks like that reliever with shoulder problems who couldn't get AAA hitters out really is one of the best relievers of his generation. Whoops! Looks like that skinny reliever ended up being one of the greatest pitchers ever, and he was much better than that dynamic, proven 24-year-old with speed and superlative on-base skills. Whoops!

That's the class that the Hamilton trade belongs in. It wasn't a trade where you can look back in 10 years and ask, "What were they thinking?" It's a trade where you can look back and say, "Boy, what they were thinking sure wasn't right."

A distinction that makes Reds fans feel so much better, I'm sure.

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