In his column today (Insider Only), Buster Olney adds his to a growing number of voices suggesting that Josh Hamilton might find himself wearing blue and gold at Miller Park next season. This is a rumor that seems to be have been popping up fairly regularly over the past few months, which is interesting, because it makes almost no baseball sense.
Clearly, Josh Hamilton has as much raw talent as any player in the game. Even after slumping to the finish line at the end of this season, he still finished with a park-adjusted wOBA 40% higher than the league-average, and he’s only ever been a below-average hitter in 2009, when he missed nearly half the season due to injury. He’ll provide a lot of value to whichever team ends up signing him.
However, he’d probably provide less value to Milwaukee than most clubs. The Brewers already have one superstar and two solid roleplayers filling their outfield spots. While Hamilton would be an upgrade over Gomez and/or Aoki, their competence limits how much of an impact he could have. Compare it to the Ramirez signing from last offseason. The Brewers were getting virtually no production from third base in 2011, so basically anything Aramis Ramirez produced was an upgrade. Josh Hamilton would take playing time away from Gomez and Aoki, so only his production above and beyond their expected production is an upgrade. While it’s worth trying to pursue extra wins wherever they’re available, this seems unlikely to be worth the cost of acquiring Hamilton.
Indeed, it’s hard in general right now for the Brewers to really improve by acquiring position players this offseason, as they’re likely to field average or better players at every position on the diamond with the current roster (with the possible exception of shortstop, but they obviously won’t acquire a new starter to block Segura). There are no obvious holes on the field to fill, but there are innings previously consumed by Greinke, Marcum, and Wolf which need to be replaced. Some of this will be taken up by Fiers, Rogers, Peralta, et al, but still, it’s hard to imagine Milwaukee not getting more bang for their buck pursuing pitching over position players.
And this analysis hasn’t even yet taken into account the real question mark with Hamilton, which is staying on the field. He played 148 games in 2012, which is the first time he exceeded 140 since 2008. As 2013 will be his age 32 season, it’s hard to imagine his injury issues becoming less severe going forward. Furthermore, the delicate topic of his history with alcoholism and drug addiction can’t be ignored. The damage caused to the body by drug use does not necessarily disappear once the drug used has ceased. I hope Josh Hamilton follows a perfectly normal aging curve for the rest of his career and suffers no lingering effects from his past mistakes, but we can’t eliminate the possibility that he won’t.
Of course, it is these very issues which make Milwaukee even a possible destination for Josh Hamilton. As Olney notes in his piece, if Hamilton commands a mega contract (specifically “four-plus years for $100-plus million”), there’s virtually no chance the Brewers sign him. But I’d argue that even at a discount, Hamilton is a player that makes far more sense for a large market team. For the reasons put forth previously, I imagine Hamilton will have to miss many games due to injury. He’d be a wonderful piece for a team that can afford to put together a good roster without him, and then throw him out there when he’s healthy. But for a team like Milwaukee with real payroll constraints, it makes much more sense to devote a finite resource to an area of real need.
The question remains, of course, why this rumor keeps popping up, even though it just doesn’t seem like a very good fit. The answer seems to lie in the presence of Johnny Narron on the Brewers’ coaching staff. Until accepting his current position as Milwaukee’s hitting coach, Narron worked in the Rangers’ organization as Hamilton’s “accountability partner”, a constant presence on the road to keep him from falling into old habits. Although normally the presence of friendly faces seems to have very little impact on free agent destinations, clearly Hamilton’s situation is unique, and Narron’s presence could make a real difference for him. However, I just can’t see that overcoming how little sense it would make for the Brewers to acquire Hamilton. Perhaps Josh Hamilton would like to come to Milwaukee for a reunion, but if so, he should be prepared to accept a much smaller contract than he might be hoping for, because I really don’t see this making sense for the Brewers otherwise.