Will Josh Hamilton get $30 million per year on the open market?
Hamilton will also go into the offseason with an MVP-caliber season of at least 42 home runs and 123 RBI (as of Sept. 24) and could flash a World Series ring on his resume if the Texas Rangers can make the third time a charm in the Fall Classic.
Entering free agency in such a strong position has some thinking that Hamilton could get a record-setting contract on the open market. CBS Sports' Jon Heyman talked to one MLB executive who predicted Hamilton will receive a five-year, $150 million deal.
That would be the highest annual salary a major league player has ever earned. Alex Rodriguez is getting paid $30 million this year by the New York Yankees, but is averaging $27.5 million per season in his 10-year contract.
Even with the mega-deals Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder signed this past season, neither player is earning a $30 million annual salary.
Pujols will be paid $30 million by the Los Angeles Angels in the final year of his contract in 2021, but that's after his salary steadily increases by $1 million annually beginning in 2014. Pujols averages $24 million per season during his 10-year contract.
The highest salary Fielder will be paid in a season by the Detroit Tigers is $24 million, which he'll earn annually from 2014 to 2020. He's being paid $23 million in each of the first two years of his contract. During his nine-year deal, Fielder averages $23.7 million per season.
Joey Votto signed a 10-year contract with the Cincinnati Reds this past April. He'll be paid $25 million per season from 2018 to 2023. In the first four years of his deal, beginning in 2014, his salary increases each season from a $12 million baseline.
The argument for giving Hamilton a higher annual salary is that no team is likely to give him a nine- to 10-year contract considering his history with injuries and drug abuse. There's definite concern among MLB teams that Hamilton's drug use may have exacted a toll on his body and made him more prone to getting hurt.
Can He Give a Team 150 Games?
This is perhaps the biggest question for any team interested in signing Hamilton. Just how many games can he give a team per season?
During his six-year major league career, Hamilton has averaged 121 games. Since playing 156 games in his first season with the Rangers in 2008, he's appeared in an average of 120.
Compare that to Pujols and Fielder, who play in at least 154 games per year. Fielder has played at least 161 games in each of the past three seasons and is on track to do so again in 2012.
It's not just that Hamilton plays in an all-out style, throwing his body around the field without regard to health, that gets him injured either. Yes, he broke his arm trying to slide into home plate in 2011. But this year, Hamilton has missed time with a sinus issue that is affecting his vision.
It should be noted, of course, that Hamilton won the AL MVP Award in 2010 despite playing in 133 games and essentially missing the entire month of September. So maybe the production that Hamilton would provide despite missing 20 games or more is worth whatever a team would pay.
On the Wrong Side of 30
Hamilton will be 32 years old next May. Though his numbers might say otherwise as he's having his best power season this year, at the age of 31, Hamilton is arguably past his prime years as a baseball player.
Maybe there's some thought that Hamilton has less mileage on his body since he didn't play from 2003 to 2006. Of course, the reason he wasn't playing baseball is because he was out of the game due to frequently failing drug tests.
This goes back to the question of how Hamilton's body was affected by drug use during that period. He wasn't exactly resting and recovering while he was prohibited from playing professional baseball.
How much could his drug abuse affect his ability to heal and recover from the pounding his body takes on the field?
Combine that with the fact that Hamilton is getting older—which will also take a toll—and a team has some very real concerns to address regarding his ability to stay healthy through a full season.
Is There Enough of a Market for Him?
This may be the most pertinent question of all regarding Hamilton's free agency: Who is going to pay him $30 million per season?
The most likely scenario still seems to be Hamilton returning to Texas next season. The Rangers will obviously be one of the teams ready to sign him and perhaps they'll be more willing to meet that price if they want to keep him from going to another team.
However, the teams that can typically be counted on to offer big money might be sitting this one out.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were expected to compete for Hamilton's services, but after getting Carl Crawford in that blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox, there's not a spot available in their outfield.
Could the New York Yankees be interested? They could have an opening if Nick Swisher leaves as a free agent. But owner Hal Steinbrenner has been outspoken about his desire to get the team below the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014. Signing Hamilton to a big deal doesn't mesh with that philosophy.
The Boston Red Sox could use Hamilton as a left fielder. But after shedding $260 million from their payroll in trading Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett and creating budget flexibility, would general manager Ben Cherington and team ownership really want to tie themselves up with a multi-year, big-money contract again?
Some feel the Detroit Tigers could make a run at Hamilton, but that sounds more like fantasy baseball. But if Mike Ilitch is willing to keep throwing money at his team in hopes of winning a World Series, maybe this could become reality. However, if Hamilton's body breaks down, the last thing Detroit needs is another designated hitter.
The strongest possibility for Hamilton might be the San Francisco Giants. But after getting burned on handing out big contracts to Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand, will the team be willing to make that kind of long-term investment—and this would be one of the largest ever—in a free agent again?
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