The question in the headline above isn’t meant to spark a philosophical debate, wherein we consider the inherent worth of any human being compared to any other. In that sense, it’s not likely that Josh Hamilton is worth more than you or me (well, maybe you). But rather, it’s a startling acknowledgement that the hottest baseball player on the planet is set to become a free agent after the World Series in an otherwise very barren market.
In the last week, Josh Hamilton has hit 9 homers in 34 plate appearances, and has driven in 18 runs. He has scored 10. And despite striking out in almost a third of his plate appearances, he’s managed to hit .467/.529/1.433. Also, it’s not like his season was sucking before that either, given that he was rocking a 1.182 OPS at the end of April.
For now, Hamilton stands head and shoulders above the rest of baseball, up by a lap in the AL MVP race, causing Brandon McCarthy to seek advice from the highest authorities as to how deal with him:
Siri, how do you get Josh Hamilton out?
— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) May 12, 2012
We have some precedent for this kind of otherworldliness preceding free agency: Barry Bonds hit the open market after his 73 homerun performance in 2001; Adrian Beltre hit 48 homers in his walk year, far and away his best season; and Jason Giambi left the A’s after two straight MVP-caliber seasons. But we have seen nothing like the risk accompanying Hamilton. No, I’m not talking about the substance abuse problems that threatened to derail his career. He is far more stable than almost any other player in baseball (despite a couple of very high-profile missteps).
Instead, we’re talking about injuries and the toll they can take. Baseball’s most talented player has played more than 100 games three times in in five years. He has had all manner of pulls, tightness, strains, contusions, fractures and surgeries. Seriously, look at his medical history and imagine how thick the file on him must be at any one of his many doctors. Just in the last 12 months, he’s had a broken arm, a sports hernia that required offseason surgery (his second, by the way), problems with his feet and groin, a migraine, and back stiffness.
Meanwhile, because of his past, Hamilton is reaching free agency far later than he normally would have. He’ll be 32 in 2013, presumably beginning to exit what should be the prime of his career. And as players get older, they get injured more (and for much longer), not less. And what further toll are those injuries going to take as Hamilton dies the death of a thousand cuts? How much longer until his bat speed starts to go? What about his speed and quickness? He’s already stretched as a centerfielder, after all.
Rangers fans already know all about this. Rusty Greer was hugely popular in Texas at the end of the 1990s, known for his hard-nosed style and his willingness to punish his body. He also was 31 in 2001, coming off a season when he suffered from plantar fasciitis and a shoulder problem, when the Rangers signed him to a three year, $22 million extension to keep him through 2004. In June, he pinched a nerve in his hip and had to miss the rest of the season. In 2002, he tore his rotator cuff, and hurt his hip, back, elbow, and neck crashing into a wall, and was done in June yet again (though he tried to come back in July and played one game). He never played again, and the Rangers were on the hook for another $14 million.
So what do you pay one of the best players in baseball, when you should probably be planning on him being healthy for 80% of your games, max? My answer, the easiest answer, is that you don’t pay him. Hamilton’s simply not reliable enough. Signing him is likely to work out poorly for most of his contract. It’s like being able to see Carl Pavano coming again.
But if signing Josh Hamilton is a mandate, you can’t commit the long-term suicide that Hamilton and Michael Moye (his agent) are going to want. Even if you have to overpay in the short term, it’s worth not having additional dead weight at the end of the deal. I cannot stress this enough, you can’t go five years on Josh Hamilton, because there’s a very real chance that, in five years, Hamilton’s going to be Rusty Greer. Out of baseball, as we remind ourselves of how great he was this summer.