9:01 PM CDT, May 12, 2012
You have to hand it to Josh Hamilton. While he's constantly on guard against his personal demons, he somehow still seems to be exactly what we want all athletes to be -- a big kid playing a child's game.
"Hands down, he's the best player in the American League," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "He plays a premium position and he's a legitimate five-tool guy. He looks like a 15-year-old playing with a bunch of 10-year-olds."
On the night after his four-home-run barrage against the Orioles in Baltimore -- at a time when he had just delivered five homers and a double in six at-bats -- Hamilton joined some of his Rangers teammates in a furious burst of tarp sliding at Camden Yards.
Never mind that he has had a history of injuries and self-destruction, playing 100-plus games in a season only three times since being drafted in 1999. Nor that he has joined the Dodgers' Matt Kemp in generating Triple Crown conversation. Nor that his negotiations with the Rangers in the last two years have failed to produce an agreement that would keep him off the free-agent market after this season.
Hamilton feels like a kid, so he acted like one. He stood in left field in the pouring rain and then sprinted toward the covered infield, finishing with a thunderous belly flop and long slide on the tarp.
No harm was done, and the outfielder's lone regret leaving Baltimore was that he homered only once in Thursday's doubleheader.
After a two-homer night against the rival Angels on Friday and another HR on Saturday, he is hitting .402 with 18 homers, 41 RBIs and a 1.334 OPS, leading the majors in all four categories.
You would think teams would be lining up to chase him as a free agent. But he presents a difficult question for owners and executives, as his dark side of drug addiction and depression is always part of the package, along with a body that has caused him to miss an average of 48 games the last three years.
Hamilton loves playing for manager Ron Washington and with teammates Michael Young and Ian Kinsler. But he said in spring training he won't give the Rangers a hometown discount.
Hamilton sees his value as being in the range of Kemp (eight years, $160 million), Joey Votto (10 years, $225 million), Albert Pujols (10 years, $240 million) and Prince Fielder (nine years, $214 million). The Rangers are believed to have offered him only four- or five-year extensions for about half the size of those contracts.
It's unlikely the Rangers will be able to add contract language that would fully protect the team if Hamilton, who turns 31 on May 21, uses drugs -- the history of arbitration has sided with players under contract, not teams -- and there's a real fear his body will fail him and his performance will spiral downward, like the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano, who was 31 in the first year of his 8-year, $136 million deal.
"I pray all the time that God's going to have us where he wants us to be," Hamilton said last week. "If that's Texas, then it's Texas. If not, then I'll be happy to go wherever he wants us to go."
With teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies worried about the payroll tax, the two teams best positioned to chase Hamilton are the rebuilding Cubs and the Dodgers. But it seems unlikely the Guggenheim Baseball Partners would spend heavily to put Hamilton alongside Kemp, and Theo Epstein's analysts certainly have noticed Hamilton is a notoriously poor daytime player (career slash line of .258/.324/.442 compared to .331/.386/.594 at night).
So where does Hamilton best fit, if not with the Rangers? The team that makes the most sense is the Brewers.
They have cultivated a rabid fan base, selling 82 percent of Miller Park's seats entering the weekend (fourth-best in the majors).
They have an aggressive owner (Mark Attanasio), payroll flexibility (only $52.4 million guaranteed for 2013) and just lost Fielder as a complement to Ryan Braun.
Of most importance, they employ the Narron brothers, Jerry as Ron Roenicke's bench coach and Johnny as his hitting coach. Neighbors of the teenage Hamilton in North Carolina, the Narrons have been as important to Hamilton's success as anyone except perhaps his wife. Was that what general manager Doug Melvin was thinking when he hired Johnny away from the Rangers last winter?
Laying a claim: There was talk over the winter that the Angels were going to take Los Angeles away from the Dodgers — maybe even opting out of their deal at Angel Stadium to build a new stadium in downtown Los Angeles to open in 2016 — but Kemp is doing plenty to keep the traditional power strong, both now and for the foreseeable future. He had outhomered Pujols 12-1 entering the weekend.
"No doubt Albert at some point is going to wake up,'' Dave Stewart, the four-time 20-game winner who serves as Kemp's agent, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "When that happens, too bad for the AL West. (But) Matt is young. He's motivated. He wants to get to the level Albert is. On top of that, he's challenged. You can't just give Los Angeles to Albert. If Albert's going to be the talk of Los Angeles and Southern California, he's definitely going to have to take it from Matt."
Stewart said he never has seen Kemp as comfortable as he has been this year, the first on his eight-year, $160 million contract. How big of a star can he become?
Stewart said Rickey Henderson is the best player he has played with, then quickly compared Kemp to Frank Thomas (power), Willie Mays (fielding in center) and Barry Bonds (all-around production).
"You look at center fielders,'' Stewart said. "It's one of the hardest-working positions in baseball along with shortstop, second base and catching.''
Yesterday's news: The Phillies won 102 games last season and have been in the playoffs five years in a row. Their star-spangled rotation remains intact but the team coming to Wrigley Field this week is sputtering, with injury, age and the impending free agencies of Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino weighing on manager Charlie Manuel and the front office.
"Basically, we're kind of spinning our wheels," Manuel said last week. "The teams we're playing, at times they try to give us the game and we act like we don't want to take it. We make mistakes and we give it right back to them."
The Phillies already have lost six games in the ninth inning or later, with Manuel struggling to get leads from his starters to new closer Jonathan Papelbon. The bullpen entered the weekend with a 5.47 ERA, the highest in baseball, and Manuel said everyone is playing tight as they wait for Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to get healthy.
It doesn't help that everyone else in the NL East is getting better, with the Nationals and Marlins joining the Braves as serious threats to end the Phillies' playoff run. Even the Mets have won five of six from the Phillies.
The last word: "I am motivated to get back quickly and see to it personally that these people never walk down Broad Street in celebration again.'' — Nationals center fielder Jayson Werth, who said Philadelphia fans were yelling things like "You deserve it" and "That's what you get" after he broke his left wrist making a sliding catch at Citizens Bank Park.
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