Rich teams looking to land an elite offensive outfielder this offseason will have one name at the top of their wish lists:
It was widely expected before the start of the 2012 season that Hamilton would be the top position player on the free-agent market this winter, and he hasn't done anything throughout the course of the season to compromise that expectation. Despite a prolonged slump in June and July, Hamilton has hit 40 home runs and racked up 119 RBI with 22 games left to play.
Another AL MVP award isn't a lock for the Texas Rangers' star outfielder, but he's certainly in the discussion. At the very least, he should finish in the top five of the voting, and that's just another thing he can sell to prospective employers this winter.
Prospective employers can hear him out if they want, but the smarter thing to do would be to ignore Hamilton and go and give the Arizona Diamondbacks a call. They have an outfielder they'll be looking to unload, and trading for this particular outfielder would be a lot smarter than signing Hamilton to a massive free-agent contract.
We're talking, of course, about none other than Justin Upton.
The Diamondbacks toyed with the idea of trading Upton ahead of the non-waiver trade deadline, and he was even claimed after the Diamondbacks put him on waivers in August, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. Obviously, he wasn't moved.
According to ESPN's Buster Olney (Insider post), rival executives around the league believe that the Diamondbacks will finally move Upton this winter.
The hope all along this season was that Upton would spring to life and carry the Diamondbacks toward a second straight postseason berth. This hasn't happened. Upton struggled through the first four months of the season, and he's hitting a modest .281/.324/.438 with five homers and 12 RBI since the first of August.
Hamilton, meanwhile, is hitting .288/.356/.575 with 11 homers and 35 RBI since the first of August. He's hit almost as many home runs in his last 38 games as Upton has all season (13).
So then—why exactly would Upton be a smarter acquisition than Hamilton?
It has little to do with how well the two of them have performed this season. Hamilton hasn't been as dominant as he was in his MVP season in 2010, but he has a good shot to end up leading the majors in both home runs and RBI when all is said and done. Players who can do such things tend to do well in free agency (see: Fielder, Prince).
Upton, on the other hand, isn't going to come close to the numbers he put up in 2011 when he posted an .898 OPS and hit 31 home runs with 21 stolen bases. His immense talent has all but disappeared, and as a result, his value has plummeted.
And that's the beauty of it.
If the Diamondbacks do decide to trade Upton this winter, they won't be giving him up for peanuts. It likely will take a couple of blue-chip prospects to land him or a package centered around a young, established major leaguer and a few prospects (this is just me speculating based on reports such as the one Bob Nightengale of USA Today published back in July).
But since Upton will be coming off a down year, Arizona GM Kevin Towers won't have nearly as much leverage in trade talks as he would have had if he had tried to trade Upton this past offseason. Upton is still very much worthy of an impressive trade haul, but he probably could be had for half of what it would have taken to land him last winter.
Besides, one must look at the situation relative to what it will cost to land Hamilton. And financially, it's going to cost a ton to sign him.
According to ESPN's Jim Bowden (Insider post), Hamilton is going to be on the lookout for a contract similar to the deals handed out to Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols this past offseason, and he has little interest in giving the Rangers a hometown discount.
If this is true, we're talking about a 10-year deal worth around $200 million.
Hamilton isn't going to get a deal for that many years, but an annual salary of around $20 million isn't such a stretch. Even if his deal ends up being for five or six years with an option year or two, it's likely that he will join the pantheon of $20 million-per-year players this winter.
No matter how long Hamilton's next contract is for, there will be plenty of risk inherent in it. Hamilton is already 31 years old, and everyone knows about his past problems with drug and alcohol addiction and his inability to stay healthy for a full season.
To make matters even trickier, Hamilton is not without his flaws as a hitter. His 24.3 percent strikeout rate (via FanGraphs) this season is the highest of his career, and he tends to stay cold for a long time when he loses his focus at the plate.
As such, whoever signs Hamilton will be taking on a player who's either going to be worth every penny, or a massive bust. It's hard to imagine there being any in between.
We have more than enough evidence to suggest that Upton is the same kind of player in his own right, but there's less risk where he's concerned because of the friendliness of the contract he's signed to.
Upton signed a six-year extension with the Diamondbacks back in March of 2010. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, it will pay him under $10 million in 2013, $14.25 million in 2014 and $14.5 million in 2015.
These are modest prices to pay for a player with as much talent as Upton, and it's not a ton of money for a team to swallow if he does continue to struggle. And in the event that Upton reverts back to his 2011 form, he'd be more than worth the $38.5 million remaining on his contract after this season.
And indeed, why should any of us be too quick to rule out the possibility of Upton returning to form? He just turned 25 years old in late August. If you buy into the notion that hitters hit their prime around 26 or 27 years old, Upton hasn't even hit his prime yet.
And seeing as how he's already had one season in which he hit .289/.369/.529 and finished fourth in the NL MVP voting, that's kind of a scary thought. Upton could do better than that if things start clicking for him again, and he's far too young to be washed up.
A fresh start somewhere else wouldn't hurt Upton's chances of reverting back to the form he showed in 2011. There have been trade rumors buzzing around his head for months, and the 2012 season has not been without its share of drama between Upton and his bosses. What he needs after this season is a change in scenery.
That's something of a baseball cliché, to be sure. But hey, it's worked for Hanley Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis.
As for Hamilton, the possibility exists that a change of scenery would be a very, very bad thing instead of a very, very good thing.
Per Bowden's report (and about a million other reports), Hamilton is comfortable in Texas. He lives in the Dallas area, and he may not move outside of Texas even if he does head elsewhere this offseason. He's also comfortable with the Rangers, who have gone way above and beyond the call of duty to accommodate him since he arrived via a trade with the Cincinnati Reds following the 2007 season.
If Hamilton does sign elsewhere, his new employer will surely duplicate the Rangers' efforts to make Hamilton comfortable. What he can't change, however, is the new environment into which he'll be placed. And if he signs with a big-market team in a big city, that could be a problem given his history of problems away from the field.
Because this possibility exists, I'll wager that trading for Upton rather than signing Hamilton would not only be a smarter transaction but a safer transaction as well.
It all boils down to a pretty simple comparison.
If a team signs Hamilton, it will be hoping for a player who's going to hit 35-plus home runs and drive in more than 100 runs every year. If Hamilton doesn't do that, he won't be worth the $20 million or so he's going to be getting paid.
If a team trades for Upton, it will be hoping for a player who has the ability to hit .300 with 30-homer power and 20-steal speed while providing above-average defense in right field. If Upton doesn't do that, he'll be overpaid for a couple years and will then be somebody else's problem.
Twist my arm and ask me to pick one of them, I'd take Upton.
In fact, twisting my arm isn't really all that necessary.
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