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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

November 8, 2012 at 9:38 AM

Pursuing Josh Hamilton is a risk worth taking for Mariners

joshhamilton.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press)

Should the Mariners make Josh Hamilton their primary free-agent focus?

In the past week, I’ve heard Josh Hamilton referred to as a “young 31” and an “old 31.” This is one confounding fellow we’re talking about — a premier slugger with a history of personal struggles. And, of course, the best hitter available on the free-agent market this winter, now being strongly linked to the Mariners, who have a long-standing, increasingly desperate and so-far unrequited need to improve their offense.

Jon Heyman of CBS was the first to write yesterday that the Mariners “look like a possible new entry” into the Hamilton sweepstakes. And Bob Nightengale of USA Today later tweeted that “The Seattle #Mariners and the Baltimore #Orioles are expected to be the finalists for Josh Hamiltons’ services,several GMs predict.”

It makes sense, in that if you were to draw up the prototypical player who would fill the Mariners’ biggest need, the result would look a lot like Hamilton. A left-handed-hitting outfielder whom you can pencil in, in April, for something close to a .300 average (as high as .359 in 2010), 30 or so homers (43 this past season) and 100 RBIs (128 in ’12, and as high as 130 in 2008).

But because that brilliant-hitting outfielder is named Josh Hamilton, it’s not quite that easy. His addiction problems are well-chronicled and don’t need to be re-hashed. Hamilton missed three full seasons in his early 20s because he was on MLB’s restricted list, which is why he was referenced as “a young 31” by one acquaintance — three years of wear and tear were avoided during those years. But I tend to lean toward the opposite conclusion — that the abuse Hamilton put his body through in his youth, plus the injuries he’s accumulated with his reckless style of play as a major-leaguer, more than compensated for the years off the playing field.

For that reason, I would be very reluctant to meet Hamitlon’s reported asking price of $175 million over seven years. Hey, it doesn’t hurt to ask, right? But I would be stunned if any team met those terms, based on all the red flags associated with Hamilton. Peter Angelos, owner of the Orioles, a team hotly rumored to be a major player for Hamilton, can be a loose cannon, but I’d expect Hamilton to fall more in the four- or five-year range, at somewhere between $20 million and $25 million. And at that price, daunting as it might sound, I believe it would behoove the Mariners to jump in.

The fact of the matter is, the Mariners need to send a message to their fans. You know it, I know it, the American people know it (Note to young folks: That’s an old SNL reference. Ask your parents). That’s not license to spend recklessly. But given the depth of skepticism, distrust and downright anger directed at the team right now by its fan base, I do think that a big-name, big-time acquisition (or two) is essential just to show that they are not going to go down the rebuilding road indefinitely — that they are indeed focused on taking the next step to contention. Ultimately, winning is the only thing that will win back the trust, but it would take supreme confidence by the Mariners in the continuing progress of their prospects and young players to proceed into 2013 without getting a prime-time player to hasten the process. And judging by Jack Zduriencik’s on-the-record statement about being willing to up the payroll, I believe they understand it, too. I would be disappointed if their pursuit of Hamilton, or any other prominent free agent, isn’t more aggressive than what we saw last year with Prince Fielder.

That’s not to say this should be a “Hamilton or bust” offseason. I’ve already mentioned some red flags associated with him. He tends to get hurt. He’s had a couple of highly publicized lapses in sobriety while with the Rangers. He’s played more than 150 games in a season just once in his career — in 2008. Hamilton missed five games late this past season, when the Rangers were battling the A’s for the division lead, because of blurred vision, later revealed to be caused by cornea inflammation, which Hamilton blamed on too much caffeine. We all remember the routine fly he dropped that helped cost the Rangers a critical game with Oakland. He struck out 18 times in his last 42 at-bats, and teammate Mike Adams recently told ESPNDallas, “Sometimes he shows up and you don’t know which Josh is going to show up at the ballpark. It’s nothing to be negative about toward Josh; that’s just the way it is. That’s what you get with Josh.”

Yeah, but….the guy can really, really rake. Hamilton’s slugging percentage of .577 last year was second in the AL only to the .606 of Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. And Hamilton is two years removed from a year in which he led the major leagues with a .633 slugging percentage. Sticking a guy like Hamilton into the middle of the Mariners order would have an immeasurable positive effect up and down the line. Theoretically, anyway. For all his issues, the Rangers won, and won big, with Hamilton as their showcase player (admittedly with a lot of talent around him). They won the AL pennant in both 2010 and 2011, were one strike away (twice) from a World Series title, and made the playoffs this past season despite their season-ending nosedive.

Oh, yeah — Hamilton hasn’t had much success at Safeco Field, putting up a .224/.338/.408 line in 34 games. But that’s a small sample size, and the fences are coming in (not in right field, but Hamilton still would stand to benefit. It will be interesting to see if the new dimensions make free agents more amenable to playing in Seattle). One final factor to consider is that signing Hamilton — because he was given a qualifying offer by the Rangers, under the new CBA rules — would cost the Mariners their top draft pick in June, No. 12 overall. This is not considered a strong draft class, but losing that pick would still hurt. The other free agents given a qualifying offer of $13.3 million, by the way, are Nick Swisher, Hiroki Kuroda and Rafael Soriano of the Yankees, David Ortiz of the Red Sox (he’s already re-signed with Boston), B.J. Upton of Tampa Bay, Michael Bourn of Atlanta, Adam LaRoche of Washington and Kyle Lohse of St. Louis. They have until Friday to accept the offer, making them a signed player, or reject it.

I would expect Jack Zduriencik to be working numerous parallel paths to land a bat or two, from free agency to trades. But if they focus in on Hamilton as a top choice, I say go for it.

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