When news of Josh Hamilton’s asking price on the free agent market was first reported – the former American League MVP is believed to be seeking a $175 million contract to be doled out over the next seven years – the response varied as to whether or not such a target was realistic.  Some believed the terms to be preposterous, while others suggested that there would be at least one front office out there willing to approach such a demand. Among the arguments for or against such a contract being offered there was one common theme: the player’s past.

By now, we’re all somewhat aware that Josh Hamilton’s past includes a lot of drugs and a lot of alcohol. It’s easy for us to blindly state that a recovering alcoholic and drug addict is the exact type of person in whom you do not want to invest tens of millions of dollars. They will always be affected by their past, right? We’ve heard the pop psychology explanations about such things time and time again. Once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict.

I’m severely under qualified to examine the legitimacy of such a statement. And I suspect that the great majority of us should be similarly indisposed to offering opinions on how the life of an addict might affect his or her future ability to stay healthy. Nonetheless, we imagine that we understand these things enough to use Hamilton’s non-baseball playing past to judge the value and worth of Josh Hamilton as a baseball player in the future.

I don’t know why the human mind feels the need to do this, but it does. We convince ourselves that our own understanding expands far beyond its rather limited boundaries and then we use our overestimation to explain and pass judgment on things that we truly can’t begin to understand. This is the basis for about 95% of what’s written about sports.

Perhaps most bothersome about those referring to Hamilton’s past as a means of refuting his future value is that it’s being done without much in the way of understanding what comprises his past. While I don’t believe it’s possible to wholly understand how Josh Hamilton’s past affects his future, we might be able to at least glean something that approaches an understanding of his past, or at least the past that’s been presented to us in interviews and features through the years.

On June 2, 1999, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays drafted an 18-year-old high school outfielder out of North Carolina with the first overall pick in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft. Unless you attended secondary school at a secret facility housing genetic experiments, Josh Hamilton was not your typical high school baseball player.

He was 6’4″ and weighed 200 pounds. He ran the 60-yard dash in 6.7 seconds, and even though he wasn’t thought to have a future as a Major League pitcher, he could still throw a baseball at a velocity that reached 96 miles per hour. He was as alluring to talent evaluators as a horror movie is to a teenager. His abilities were positively frightening, but they elicited a desirous scare.

The Devil Rays paid this superhuman a $4 million signing bonus, and he quickly rose through the ranks of the organization, gaining promotion through three different levels during his first two years as a professional. His dominance in terms of both power and speed earned him the title of baseball’s best prospect, as bestowed upon the beast by Baseball America before his age 20 season.

In February of that year, he and his parents were in a traffic collision. Their car was rammed by a truck that had run a red light, and while Hamilton suffered back problems that were significant enough to cause him to miss time later in the season, it was his mother whose injuries were the most severe. She required medical treatment back home in North Carolina, meaning that for the first time in his life Josh Hamilton would be on his own.

Following the signing of his original contract with Tampa Bay, a record for a Major League draft pick, Tony and Linda Hamilton quit their jobs and traveled with their son. For two years they followed him around, from Princeton, West Virginia, to Wappingers Falls, New York, and onto Charleston, South Carolina, cheering and offering a type of support that wasn’t readily available for most prospects. That likely wasn’t a good thing.

According to a feature in the Washington Post from 2007, the Devil Rays were concerned enough over his attachment to his parents to encourage Hamilton to stay with a host family when he played for the Hudson Valley Renegades in the New York Penn league.  He did, but his parents stayed in a nearby hotel and still attended every game.

Al Stewart, who opened up his house to Hamilton as the father of the ballplayer’s host family in New York, said that the parental involvement was overwhelming at times.

We disagreed with how they went about it, but it wasn’t our place to say anything. We both thought one of these days he was going to break out. We didn’t think it would be anything like this, but we knew there was going to be a backlash.

Like something out of a Lou Reed song, Hamilton’s walk on the wild side began when his addictive personality replaced the exiting parental pillar with surrogates in the form of tattoo parlor patrons in Bradenton, Florida. His general openness about his past has created a few discrepancies in the reported stories, but he quickly went from having his first sip of beer to his first snort of cocaine to his first haul of crank. Whether or not it all happened in one night doesn’t really matter.

Hamilton, who would never be accused of going into anything half-heartedly, showed the same determination in his lifestyle change as he had previously displayed on the baseball field. The Devil Rays organization grew concerned when they saw their golden boy prospect suddenly scarred by permanent ink stains etched into his skin. They sent him to see a sports psychologist. Then, they sent him to the Betty Ford Clinic. Neither seemed to have much of an effect.

A year later, Hamilton failed his first drug test. He would fail multiple more, and eventually refuse all together to have his urine tested for drugs of abuse by Major League Baseball. This resulted in him not playing a single professional game between 2003 and 2005 by order of the commissioner. It was during this time that Hamilton sought out his future father-in-law, Michael Chadwick, a successful businessman who had overcome drugs and alcohol to create a Christian ministry focused on helping addicts get their life back together.

Hamilton responded to Chadwick’s influence, and there was hope. Instead of immersing himself in the culture that led to tribal tattoos, drugs and alcohol, Hamilton became a part of Chadwick’s family … literally. He married his daughter, Katie, and acted as a step-father to her child from a previous marriage. They had a child of their own, and Hamilton seemed to clean himself up through his new family, and a devotion to Christianity.

However, transformations are never as immediate as they appear to be in pieces of fiction. Within six months of their marriage, Hamilton was using again, and the couple was separated. Even when his wife brought their newborn daughter back from the hospital, Hamilton was out getting high. Once again, he established a new rock bottom, but this time the resulting redemption from a confrontation with his grandmother – the only member of his family who was still in communication with him – actually seemed to take.

After gaining employment at a practice facility, Hamilton renewed his focus on baseball. He repaired the broken relationship with his wife, and through the help of his father-in-law, he was reinstated by Major League Baseball. After a brief stint in the Minor Leagues, Tampa Bay left him off their 40-man roster, and he was selected in the Rule Five Draft by the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs traded him to the Cincinnati Reds, who gave him an immediate job in center field. He played well there over 90 games, but an ankle injury ended his season early. During the off season after his rookie year, Hamilton was traded to the Texas Rangers.

In five years with the Rangers, Hamilton was dominant. From 2008 to 2012, only eleven other batters put up a better weighted on base average. He won the American League MVP Award in 2010, and for a spell of 2012, he looked like a reincarnated Barry Bonds, culminating in a four home run game against the Baltimore Orioles in May.

It hasn’t all been hugs and high-fives. There were two reported back slides, including the release of embarrassing photos from a night at a bar in Tempe, Arizona, where he was overheard asking where he could find cocaine. There were also the injuries. Hamilton, most likely through both his all out style of play of the time spent abusing his body, has missed 235 games over his six year career. It’s an extensive list of injuries that includes shin splits, gastroenteritis, hamstring sprains, knee inflammations, hand and foot bruises, achilles strains, fractured ribs, groin strains, hernia surgery, nerve damage in his lower back, general shoulder problems, and sinus issues.

While the Hamilton saga certainly possesses the narrative substance of which movies are made, we’re only interested in his past as it pertains to his future, or more specifically his future contract. Yes, it’s sad to think what he could have accomplished, and how seemingly random it is that one incident sets off a bizarre series that reduces someone’s potential, but he’s still managed to be a brilliant baseball player.

Despite missing such a large number of games because of being hurt, Hamilton has still managed to average 4.2 wins per season throughout his career. So, taking into account his injuries, and the fact that over the last three seasons, Hamilton has averaged 5.6 fWAR per season, let’s suggest that he’s a true talent four win player. That’s likely less than he deserves, but for the sake of this evaluation, we’ll use a normal aging curve, which is likely (not certainly) more than he deserves.

With this in mind, over seven years, we can expect Hamilton to put up 17.5 wins above replacement. That’s hardly an insane number. While no one in baseball history has Hamilton’s back story, 125 other big league players have put up 17.5 WAR or more in their age 32 to age 38 seasons. The question then becomes how much a win above replacement has to cost in order to make Hamilton’s, admittedly crudely, projected 17.5 WAR worth his $175 million demand.

Typically, we’ve considered one win above replacement to be worth roughly $5 million on the free agent market, but the times are certainly changing with a new collective bargaining agreement, less talent available on the free agent market, increased funds due to regional and national television deals and perhaps above all else, the Los Angeles Dodgers mandate to spend all of the money that’s ever been earned.

In a recent interview with FOX Sports, Cleveland Indians President Mark Shapiro, the long-time baseball executive spoke of valuing a win above replacement at $9 million. That’s likely referring to a proprietary measurement specific to his own organization, and it might include a very different sense of aging curves than what we typically use, but there remains evidence, even if it is circumstantial at this point, to suggest that a win above replacement will be worth more this off season than it has been in the past, and that the inflation with which we typically assign to these types of deals will dramatically increase.

In order for a seven year, $175 million contract for Josh Hamilton to work out in terms of value for an organization, a win above replacement would have to be worth $10 million in 2016. If we use the typical 5% inflation, this means that we would have to value the cost of a single win at somewhere near $8.6 million ahead of 2013. If we double the expected inflation, we get a figure close to $7.5 million per win above replacement this off season. Using this range, I think it’s fair to say that signing Hamilton to his contract demand means that the club agreeing to the proposed deal believes a win above replacement, as we understand it, to be worth between $7.5 million and $8.5 million.

If we go by the old model that uses a $5 million cost per WAR with 5% inflation and a standard aging curve decline, a team would be foolish to spend more than $100 million over seven years of Josh Hamilton. That’s not a contract that’s realistically going to get signed by Hamilton. Even the conservative estimate of the Fangraphs form of crowd sourcing came to the collective conclusion that the current outfielder and future designated hitter is worthy of that same figure, but over five years.

Former Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden, writing for ESPN, also predicted a five year contract for Hamilton, but one worth $115 million. Even though Bowden had an unbelievable run of correct predictions last off season, I think that he along with the Fangraphs readers are being conservative in their estimates.

This isn’t last year’s free agent class, and it’s not last year’s budget either. Neither is it the same cost per WAR that we’ve used in the past. The 2012 off season is going to tell us a lot about the cost of players in the future, even if much of what it tells ends up being dependent on Josh Hamilton’s past. It’s a history that’s as difficult to understand as the future it affects. But make no mistake, this contract is important in setting the price for which future contracts are paid.

Sources:

New Life At The Plate. [Washington Post]
The Natural. [HearldNet]
The Supernatural. [Sports Illustrated]
Staying Clean A Day At A Time. [St. Petersburg Times]