How was your week?
Unless you were married to a supermodel by a chocolate-covered unicorn on a cotton candy cloud, Josh Hamilton had a better one. On May 8 against the Orioles the Rangers' slugger became the 16th player to hit four homers in a game, part of a six-game stretch in which he homered nine times and drove in 15 runs. By Sunday, Hamilton led the AL in all three Triple Crown categories by large margins, as well as in OBP, slugging and every sabermetric acronym you could shake from the alphabet.
Looming over Hamilton's dream week, however, was his impending free agency. The 2010 AL MVP, who turns 31 on May 21, is in the last year of a two-year, $24 million contract. He has helped the Rangers win the last two AL pennants and get off to the best start in the league this season, and he'll be the biggest position-player prize in the free-agent pool. Hamilton's raw talent has never been questioned, dating to when he was the first pick in the 1999 amateur draft out of high school. Next winter, going into his age 32 season, he'll be looking for the kind of long-term contract that has been standard for the best player on the market.
There was a 32-year-old free-agent slugger last winter, and you may have noticed that Albert Pujols hasn't exactly torn it up after signing a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels. Will that contract—and the ones signed in recent years by Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth and others—cause teams to run away from Hamilton?
It's indelicate to point out, but Hamilton is no ordinary free agent. His prodigious talent has been matched by an inability to stay on the field. Hamilton averaged just 118 games in his first five major league seasons, missing time with injuries to his right wrist, right thigh, ribs, right arm and back. Questions about Hamilton's future durability are inevitably tied to his status as a recovering drug and alcohol addict. Hamilton—who was on the restricted list from 2003 through '05 while fighting his demons—has already had two highly publicized relapses (most recently in February), but future ones aren't the primary concern. The bigger worry is what kind of damage might have been done to his body when he was in his 20s. Are Hamilton's injuries related to his history of substance abuse? If so, how does that affect the rest of his career? It's an impolite question, but $150 million investments leave little room for courtesy.
If Hamilton were a typical 32-year-old free-agent outfielder, there would be reasons to be cautious about signing him (box). With his track record there are even more. The thing is, there's also the potential for nights like May 8, when the homers kept coming, and it seemed like no one would ever get Hamilton out. With each long opposite-field bomb, Hamilton sets himself up as perhaps the most fascinating free-agent case in history.
Josh Hamilton's talent is dazzling, but teams thinking of chasing him should keep this in mind: Some of the worst free-agent contracts of the last five years have been for outfielders on the wrong side of 30.
AGE IN FIRST SEASON OF CONTRACT
ALFONSO SORIANO CUBS
8 YEARS, $136 MILLION
JAYSON WERTH NATIONALS
7 YEARS, $126 MILLION
CARLOS LEE ASTROS
6 YEARS, $100 MILLION
J.D. DREW RED SOX
5 YEARS, $70 MILLION
JASON BAY METS
4 YEARS, $66 MILLION