How the Red Sox Signing Josh Hamilton Would Toss Team, Payroll Back into Chaos

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How the Red Sox Signing Josh Hamilton Would Toss Team, Payroll Back into Chaos
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The Boston Red Sox just jettisoned two $20 million-per-year players and a roughly $16 million-per-year player in their recent mega-trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Gone are Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. What has arrived, in effect, is a second chance; one that would have evaded the Red Sox for years had general manager Ben Cherington not found a way to get rid of three of the club's most problematic contracts.

Now that the Red Sox have this second chance, the whole baseball world seems to be waiting for them to throw it away. One way they could do that is by signing Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, a soon-to-be free agent, to a massive contract this offseason.

People started pointing at Hamilton as a potential target of the Red Sox the very second Boston finalized its trade with the Dodgers. And why not? With roughly $250 million in salaries cleared in one transaction, the Red Sox now have more than enough pocket change to invest in Hamilton.

Cherington only helped fan the flames when he admitted that Hamilton's name has popped up in conversations held in Boston's front office.

Here's what Cherington told WEEI this week when he was asked, somewhat indirectly, if the Red Sox have any interest in Hamilton (via ESPNBoston.com):

We have to look at anything. Yes, we’ve had several conversations, we have some ideas, guys that we think might be available, either through free agency -- and those are the guys you know are going to be available -- or in trades -- guys you think might be available in trades. ... Obviously this trade changes to some extent the types of opportunities we could pursue. 

The fact is we gave up a fair amount of offense in this deal and we have to find a way to replace that offense. We may need to try to do it over more than one position rather than just acquire one guy.

Classic GM-speak. Cherington didn't go so far as to say that the Red Sox want Hamilton, but he didn't come out and say that the Red Sox don't want him.

You can read between the lines however you want, but some (most?) have taken Cherington's words to mean that the Red Sox may be preparing to make a run at Hamilton this winter.

The problem, of course, is that Hamilton is exactly the kind of player the Red Sox want to avoid this offseason.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Hamilton has a 4.5 WAR this season. Same as Ben Zobrist.

Just because the Red Sox jettisoned three very expensive players doesn't mean they suddenly have an excuse to go out and acquire another very expensive player. They got themselves in the mess they currently find themselves in thanks largely to their reckless spending. To repeat the same mistakes all over again would be the ultimate case of recklessness.

Especially if they were to sign Hamilton. If he chooses not to re-up with the Rangers, he'll hit the open market looking for a deal worth at least $20 million per season. According to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, some executives think Hamilton will set his sights around $25 or maybe even $28 million per year.

The Red Sox can afford a contract like that now, but they'd be putting themselves in a situation where they could be looking to jettison yet another albatross contract a few years down the line.

Hamilton is one of the best hitters in baseball when he's right. He won the AL batting title in 2010 with an average of .359. He hit 21 homers and drove in 95 runs in the first half of the 2008 season. Through the first 32 games of this season, he had 18 homers and 44 RBI.

But Hamilton's brilliance is not as constant as the brilliance of, say, Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera. It's a fleeting thing, coming only in spurts. He can't be relied on for 162 games of top-notch production.

His tendency to go into deep slumps is only part of the reason why. Hamilton is also one of the most injury-prone players in the game, susceptible to both minor aches and pains and more serious injuries that require weeks on the disabled list to heal.

And then there's the off-field stuff. Hamilton's victory in his battle with drug and alcohol addiction earlier in his career is one of the great stories in recent baseball history, but his victory isn't totally complete and probably never will be. He relapsed with alcohol in 2009 and again earlier this year.

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images
Hamilton referred to his relapse this year as a "moment of weakness."

Hamilton can be controlled off the field, but it requires no small effort. Hamilton has always had a solid structure of support in Texas, but the Rangers had to go so far as to hire a special assistant in February to help keep Hamilton in line after his most recent relapse. The Red Sox would have to make a carbon copy of this support structure if they were to sign Hamilton.

Even so, this wouldn't negate the reality that taking Hamilton out of Texas and putting him in Boston could be a recipe for disaster. As many players who have played for the Red Sox over the years can vouch, Boston is by no means a relaxed, low-key environment.

The will of Red Sox players is constantly tested, and not everyone who puts on the uniform is capable of putting up with it (see: Gonzalez, Adrian).

Considering the various circumstances, one would not need the luxury of retrospect to know that the Red Sox would be rolling the dice if they were to sign Hamilton to a contract this winter. It would be obvious right away that the organization was taking the ultimate risk.

And that would only be half the problem.

If the Red Sox were to sign Hamilton, they wouldn't stop there. You don't sign a player like him unless your goal is to win now. The Red Sox would not sign Hamilton to a contract and subsequently sit back and hope that he's still an MVP-caliber player when their best prospects are ready to contribute in 2014 and 2015.

No sir, the idea would be to start winning again right away in 2013.

And in order to do that, adding Hamilton wouldn't be enough. To contend in 2013, the Red Sox would have to sign Hamilton and then spend money on their starting rotation, their bullpen and perhaps other areas like shortstop, right field and catcher as well.

If they were to go on such a spending spree, the Red Sox would definitely have a quality team on their hands, but they'd also have a huge payroll on their hands, too. It's already projected to be around $110 million with the pieces they have in place now, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Add Hamilton and a few other pieces to the equation, and their 2013 payroll would likely be up over the $150 million-to-$160 million threshold.

When they won it all in 2007, the Red Sox had a $143 million payroll, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. In 2009, the last season they made the playoffs, they had a payroll of just under $122 million.

It's once they started spending big in 2010 that things started to go south. If the Red Sox sign Hamilton, that's the path they'll be headed down.

Odds are, it would only get worse with the passing of time. If Hamilton comes aboard, the Red Sox will have an elite outfield tandem in Hamilton and Jacoby Ellsbury. The only way to keep this tandem intact would be to sign Ellsbury to an extension, and an extension for him is likely going to be no cheaper than $15 million per year.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Ellsbury had a higher WAR than any player in baseball in 2011.

And Ellsbury, of course, is another less-than-dependable player. His 2010 season was ruined by injuries, and his 2012 season has been largely ruined by the shoulder injury he suffered way back in April.

If the Red Sox were to sign Hamilton and ultimately extend Ellsbury, they could very well be sitting on a payroll worth right around $175 million by 2014, which is precisely the amount their payroll was worth this season before their salary dump this past weekend.

The Red Sox owe it to themselves to go back to their roots. It wasn't huge free-agent signings that made them great in 2003 and 2004. And though they signed Julio Lugo, J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka to big contracts before the 2007 season, it wasn't those signings that made them champions for the second time in four seasons.

Early on, the Red Sox got huge returns from small investments in players like Bill Mueller, David Ortiz, Kevin Millar and Mike Timlin. Later on, they got major contributions from players who came up through the system like Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester and Ellsbury.

The Red Sox always had a big payroll in these years, to be sure, but they were successful largely because they had an eye for bargain talent and because they were able to develop talent of their own. They started being more Yankee-like after the 2009 season, and it led to their ruination.

Though Cherington didn't deny the club's interest in Hamilton, the good news for those who would rather see the Red Sox pass on Hamilton is that Cherington does seem to realize that rebuilding the Red Sox shouldn't be as simple as throwing money at the team's problems.

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"We've got to be smart in doing it," said Cherington of Boston's rebuild. "We can't just go and try to fill the void in one or two fell swoops. We've got to try to build a team and do it in a smart way and do it in a way that reflects what we believe in."

If he's true to his word, he'll pass on Hamilton. Signing him would be an attempt to fill the team's void in one or two fell swoops. Signing him wouldn't be rebuilding the team in a smart way.

We may already know which way Cherington is leaning. He could have had Joe Mauer when the Minnesota Twins placed him on waivers, and Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com wrote that claiming him would be awfully tempting for the Red Sox.

It may have been, but Cherington did not give in to said temptation. As Jon Heyman reported, the Red Sox decided to pass on Mauer.

If this is any indication of the direction in which they want to take the team, they'll pass on Hamilton, too.

 

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