Just How Did Josh Hamilton Wind Up the Texas Rangers' Savior, Anyway?

Among the group of baseball jerseys in my closet -- behind Pudge's and A-Rod's Rangers ones -- there's an old, unworn Tampa Bay Devil Rays jersey with no name or number on it. When Tampa took Josh Hamilton with the No. 1 overall pick in 1999, I bought the jersey and waited to have Hamilton's name and number stitched on the back when he made his major-league debut. Of course, Hamilton never played a day in the bigs for Tampa -- a team now called the Rays, currently in possession of the best record in the American League.

Hamilton's personal story is well chronicled, including a piece by Evan Grant in The Dallas Morning News and a last week's Sports Illustrated cover story. I've already expressed my love for the guy, but the upcoming MLB draft taking place June 5 and 6 has me reminiscing back to the 1999. Take a jump with us for more on how Hamilton ended up with the Rangers and why the Edinson Volquez deal is still a no-brainer.

Once again, the Rays have the top pick in this year's draft (the Rangers have No. 11), marking the fourth time in the last 10 years they have been awful enough to pick first. Along with Hamilton in '99, Tampa took stud pitching prospect David Price last year and, in 2003, drafted Delmon Young, who was dealt to Minnesota this past offseason for starter Matt Garza.

Over the past 25 years, plenty of teams have struck gold at No. 1 -- like Seattle with Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez (1987 and 1993, respectively) and Atlanta with Chipper Jones in 1990. But, as with other sports, the top pick is never a guarantee. Most times, the player joins the long list of failures, including famous busts Ben McDonald (1989), Brien Taylor (1991) and Paul Wilson (1994) -- to name a few.

High school players typically present the most risk, but 1999 featured two players that had scouts drooling: Hamilton and Josh Beckett. The draft also included Ben Sheets, Carl Crawford, Brandon Phillips, John Lackey, Justin Morneau, Erik Bedard and Barry Zito (who became a first rounder after Texas took him the previous year in the third and let him go because he was asking for $50,000 more than was offered).

Hamilton received nearly $4 million to ink with Tampa at No. 1, while Beckett was grabbed second by Florida. The Rangers took Nick Regilio with their second rounder (they didn't have a first), and drafted Hank Blalock in the third, Kevin Mench in the fourth and Aaron Harang in the sixth.

Spending time in both the rookie league and low Class A after the draft, Hamilton proved he was no fluke, hitting .312 with 10 homers, 55 RBI and 18 steals in just 72 games. He followed with a solid season in Class A (.302-13-61-14) at just 19 years old. But the wheels came off in 2001 when he was in the infamous car crash and hit a pathetic .180 in his first and only stop at Double-A.

The next season, Hamilton got back on track in high Class A (.303-9-24-10) before he was sidelined with shoulder and back injuries and, of course, was suspended for violating the substance abuse policy in July 2002. His drug addiction caused him to stop playing baseball during his key developmental years from ages 21 to 24 -- a significant hiccup in his path to superstardom.

After his reinstatement in June 2006, Hamilton hit .260 with no homers in 15 games in low Class A. Tampa then took a gamble by not placing him on its 40-man roster, which would have protected him from December's Rule 5 draft. For those unfamiliar with the Rule 5 draft, its purpose is to prevent teams from stockpiling talent in the minor leagues that could be productive in the majors if given the chance. Teams are arranged with those with the worst records getting first dibs at available players for the cost of $50,000, and if the player doesn't stay on the team's 25-man roster for the entirety of the season, that team has to offer the player back to his original team for $25,000.

The most notable Rule 5 pick is Mets' lefty Johan Santana, who was with the Astros organization in 1999, and then was taken in the Rule 5 draft by the Marlins. Florida dealt Santana to the Twins for Jared Camp. Santana became a multiple Cy Young winner while Camp never spent a day in Florida's organization, playing his last season in the minor leagues in 2002.

Other recent Rule 5 success stories include Florida second baseman Dan Uggla, who was taken from the Diamondbacks in 2005, and Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino, who was taken in 2002 by the Padres from the Dodgers, returned to the Dodgers, and then snatched permanently by Philadelphia in 2004.

As the 2006 Rule 5 draft approached, all eyes were on 24-year-old Ryan Goleski. Despite a big year in the minors (.306-27-106) that season, Goleski was exposed, and it was ironically the Rays who grabbed him. He was quickly sold to Oakland for $100,000 and then returned to Cleveland before the season started because he was unable to make the roster. Goleski remains in the Cleveland system, where has struggled at Double-A Akron.

Tampa surely breathed a sigh of relief when Hamilton wasn't picked second by Kansas City, who instead took Joakim Soria -- now the Royals' closer -- from San Diego. But the Chicago Cubs struck a deal with the Reds, and they picked Hamilton third in order to sell him to Cincinnati.

Hamilton emerged as one of the best stories of last year, hitting .292 with 19 home runs and 47 RBI as a rookie with the Reds -- impressive for a guy who played in just 15 minor-league games from 2003 to 2006. But he missed significant time with injuries, and with stud prospect Jay Bruce (who has been unbelievable since getting called up this year) waiting to take over center in Cincy, Hamilton was available for the right price.

The right price, according to the Reds, was Edinson Volquez. Period. Texas assistant general manager Thad Levine told Sports Illustrated: "From Day One they wanted Edinson Volquez in return." The Rangers reportedly offered 15 different player combinations that didn't include Volquez, and all of them weren't enough to get the Reds to pull the trigger.

Volquez has been phenomenal this year, posting a 7-2 record along with a 1.46 ERA and 83 strikeouts -- both tops in the National League. But let's remember what he used to be: a highly touted prospect who had accomplished very little in the majors.

Volquez, signed as an undrafted free agent by Texas in 2001, was given his first taste of the bigs in 2005, and he was nothing short of a disaster with an 0-4 record and 14.21 ERA in six games (three starts). The following season, he worked his way up to Triple-A Oklahoma before getting another shot with the Rangers. Again, he was awful, going 1-6 with a 7.29 ERA in eight starts.

Frustrated with his inability to pitch well in Arlington, GM Jon Daniels sent Volquez back down to Class A to start all over again last year, and he responded well by moving back up to Oklahoma, where he showed his first signs of consistency with a 6-1 record and 1.41 ERA in eight starts. He ended the season with the Rangers, and although he pitched much better than previous attempts (2-1, 4.50 ERA), Volquez hardly looked like an ace ready to lead the league in ERA and Ks.

As the saying goes, you have to give something to get something, and Daniels was smart enough not to balk at trading Volquez if it meant getting Hamilton, and the deal was made.

Given both players hot starts, it begs the question if Daniels should have done the trade knowing what he knows now. And although I agree that teams should rarely trade a Cy Young-ster for an MVP, Hamilton is much closer to winning an MVP than Volquez is a Cy Young. And when you look back at both careers in 10 years, I don't think there will be any question that Hamilton is the better player.

Additionally, Hamilton has been able to replace Mark Teixeira's bat in the lineup, he's already the best center fielder in Rangers' history, he gives people a reason to go to the Ballpark, and, most importantly, he has become the face of the franchise -- albeit one with 26 tattoos on his body.

Think of the top center fielders in the game: Grady Sizemore, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Ichiro Suzuki, B.J. Upton and Chris Young. Would you trade Hamilton for any of these guys? They are all great players, but I wouldn't. Hamilton is that good.

Now what about Volquez? How many pitchers would you take before him? I could name several with no hesitation. That doesn't mean Volquez isn't really good and it wouldn't be great to have him, but he isn't in the upper tier of pitchers -- at least not yet.

Here's what I'm getting at: Hamilton is arguably the best center fielder in the game and is entering his prime years. If he stays healthy and keeps clean -- which, admittedly, are unknowns -- his next 10 years are likely to be good enough to keep him among the top players at his position, even as younger guys like Bruce enter the league, and even if Hamilton eventually moves to a corner outfield position because of how recklessly he plays defense.

Volquez, on the other hand, could be among the best pitchers in the next decade, but he could also end up simply being a very good, but not great, hurler. Pitchers are very schizophrenic: one year they are in contention for the Cy Young, the next may be a year of mediocrity.

So, give me Hamilton 10 times outta 10. Although he's near the top in all three Triple Crown categories, I don't think he'll win the first one since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, but he's a bona fide star destined to lead the Rangers in the coming years to places they haven't been to in a long time. And if he keeps this up, it will be hard to overlook him in the MVP voting even if the Rangers don't finish above .500.

In Albert Chen's SI story, he wrote:

Watch Hamilton out on the field, and even though he says he's not a fan of the game ("I think it's boring," he says. "I never check box scores; I never watch ESPN"), it's clear he wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
It's always hard for me to imagine someone fortunate enough to be able to play in the majors not having love for the game, but he looks like he's having a ball out there every time he takes the field, and his skills are off the charts. How could Rangers' fans want to watch anyone else?

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten