Shortly after Rangers general manager Jon Daniels swapped erratic right-hander Edinson Volquez and reliever Danny Herrera for Josh Hamilton five years ago, I placed seemingly unrealistic expectations on the troubled outfielder.
"He has the potential to be the best center fielder in Rangers' history and could even replace Michael Young as the face of the franchise," I wrote about a month after Texas agreed to the trade with Cincinnati, which one year earlier had purchased Hamilton from the Chicago Cubs for a measly $50,000.
Just two months into the 2008 season, I was convinced Hamilton had already earned both labels, after watching him destroy American League pitching and regularly display Gold Glove-caliber defense in the outfield.
Although Volquez was leading the National League in ERA and strikeouts at the time, I defended the trade, even calling Hamilton "a bona fide star destined to lead the Rangers in the coming years to places they haven't been to in a long time."
It's rare when you heap that much praise on someone and they actually deliver, but Hamilton did just that. And more.
Five-straight All-Star Games as a starter. Thirty-five bombs in the 2008 home run derby. Regular season MVP, ALCS MVP and a batting title in 2010. Countless times laying out and crashing into walls to make an amazing catch. Helping lead the franchise to its first two World Series appearances. His Kirk Gibson-like blast in Game 6 that Darren Oliver ruined. The four-homer game this year against the Orioles.
Five years of Hamilton's prime (ages 27 to 31) cost the Rangers a total of about $27 million, or roughly half the amount Texas paid the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters last year just for the opportunity to sign Yu Darvish. During that time, Hamilton averaged 129 games played, a .305/.363/.549 slash line, 28 homers and 101 RBI.
Not a bad deal at all. But, of course, Hamilton came with some serious baggage, highlighted by severe drug and alcohol addiction and a three-year ban from baseball during his time with the Tampa Rays organization.
From licking whipped cream off women's chests while shirtless and apparently looking to score cocaine, to the Sherlock's episode, to needing an "accountability partner" constantly by his side, to the ginger ale celebrations, to quitting chewing tobacco, to vision problems caused by downing too many energy drinks, Hamilton summed it up best when he told reporters, "Guys, it's me, Josh. It's gonna be something weird, so just go with it."
We went with it all, and it was truly a spectacular ride. But it was time to part ways. The Rangers knew it. Hamilton knew it. The fans knew it too.
Because Hamilton had done something more egregious than any of his previous transgressions at the end of the 2012 season. He stopped trying.
With the Rangers trying to secure the AL West and build momentum heading into the postseason, Hamilton looked like he couldn't care less, hitting 10-for-43 with no homers, no walks and 19 strikeouts as the Rangers lost eight of their last 10 games this year. Even the prospect of landing a massive contract in the offseason didn't appear to motivate him.
I was there October 5 as the Rangers hosted the Orioles for the wild card play-in game, just two days after Hamilton infamously dropped that fly ball in Oakland and lazily chased after it. I was disgusted at what I saw that night.
After grounding into a double play on the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the first inning with runners at the corners, Hamilton struck out looking on three pitches in the third with a runner on first and weakly grounded out to the pitcher to begin the sixth. That's when booing, which began in spurts after the first inning, engulfed Rangers Ballpark.
Then, when Hamilton stepped to the plate in the eighth inning representing the tying run, he watched a strike go by and then swung pathetically at the next two, as if the end of the season couldn't come fast enough for him.
That's when I couldn't help myself. As much as I was a Josh Hamilton fan and appreciated everything he had done for the Rangers, I booed him too because he deserved it. There was simply no excuse for his performance.
When asked by reporters after the game about the crowd's reaction, he said with a straight face: "I gave it my all every time I went out there."
That was a flat-out lie.
I don't know exactly why Hamilton waived the white flag during the last few weeks of the season, which began with that bizarre five-game absence he attributed to drinking too much caffeine. And I'm not sure Hamilton does either, but I think it's related to something I pointed out back in 2008 after reading the Sports Illustrated cover story about Hamilton written by Albert Chen.
It's somewhat buried about three-quarters into his story, but Chen mentioned that Hamilton isn't a baseball fan. He quoted Hamilton as saying, "I think it's boring. I never check box scores; I never watch ESPN."
It concerned me at the time, but as Chen also pointed out, Hamilton always looked like he was having so much fun playing. But I suppose you can only have fun playing a game you view as "boring" for so long, before it just becomes, well, really boring and you stop caring.
We may never know the full story of what the Rangers' front office really thought about re-signing Hamilton, but I think most of them are relieved to see him go elsewhere because they saw the same ugly, inexcusable behavior we all saw from Hamilton as the 2012 came to a close.
Sure, it hurts that he's now with a division rival, but it was time to move on.
Even with the disappointing end to his playing days in Arlington, Hamilton's acquisition ranks among the very best and impactful in Rangers' history. In fact, I think he earned a place on the franchise's version of Mount Rushmore, joining Nolan Ryan, Ivan Rodriguez and Michael Young.
Texas was fortunate to have Hamilton for what are likely to be his most productive years as a ballplayer, especially at an average of $5.4 million annually. But to have come anywhere in the same zip code of the five-year, $125 million offer he received from the Angels would have been irresponsible and set a bad precedent for the organization.
Stop trying? Oh, well. No worries. Here's a guaranteed $125 million contract that will make you the second highest paid player in baseball in terms of average annual value. And on top of that, how about a $10 million signing bonus and no clauses in the contract that protect the team should you have another drug or alcohol relapse?
So is Angels' owner Arte Moreno crazy then? That answer is coming in the years ahead, as Hamilton and Albert Pujols earn more money every year they get older. (Although agreeing to absorb nearly all of Vernon Wells' contract two years ago might be all the evidence needed that Moreno's unbalanced.)
Maybe the move to Anaheim will make the game fun again for Hamilton. And maybe Hamilton's the guy to put Moreno's club over the top, but most likely not. I'm not a fan of using WAR (wins above replacement) as the ultimate evaluation of a player, but it's still a useful way of comparing players in terms of overall impact.
Baseball-Reference rated Hamilton at 3.4 WAR (tied for 52nd in baseball) this year and Torii Hunter, the player he's replacing in Anaheim, at 5.5. FanGraphs has it a little closer -- Hunter at 5.3 and Hamilton at 4.4.
Simply put, that means Hunter was worth between one and two more wins to Anaheim last year than if Hamilton had been there instead.
The AL West was won this year with pitching, and until proven otherwise, that will be the recipe for success in 2013. Oakland finished eighth in the AL in runs scored and 13th in batting average, but second in ERA and batting average against. Last I checked, Hamilton doesn't pitch.
Kudos to Jon Daniels and the Rangers for letting Hamilton date other teams this offseason. "Hambone" turned out to be everything we could have asked for and more in his five years here, but five more would have felt like being trapped in a loveless marriage.
Sam Merten is a former Dallas Observer staff writer. He has covered the Texas Rangers since 2007 and tweets about the team @SamMerten.
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