Why Red Sox Signing Josh Hamilton Would Be Bigger Disaster Than Carl Crawford

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 16, 2012

You get the feeling that the Boston Red Sox aren't dying to sign slugging outfielder Josh Hamilton to a massive free-agent contract.

Nonetheless, reports that have been trickling out ever since the offseason began would have everyone believe otherwise. The Red Sox may look quiet on the outside, but they might be worshiping an idol of Hamilton on the inside.

On Thursday, for example, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com cautioned to "keep an eye on the Red Sox" in the chase for Hamilton.

"Boston wants to do something big and it wouldn't shock me if they became players for Josh Hamilton,'' said a rival GM.

Coincidentally, Sox GM Ben Cherington did an interview on Thursday with the Dennis and Callahan Show on WEEI, and he acknowledged that they have met with Hamilton's agent. However, he classified the situation as the Sox just doing their "due diligence," and he didn't have much to say in regard to how Hamilton would fit into the club's plans.

A little later on, Rob Bradford of WEEI.com reported that he had heard from a source that Boston's supposed interest in Hamilton is being "overblown." 

So yeah, Thursday was a busy day in the Hamilton-to-Boston theater of the offseason. Despite the mixed messages, it would seem that the link between the two sides is stronger now than ever before.

It may not be strong enough for anyone to start believing that Hamilton and the Sox are destined for one another, mind you, but it's certainly strong enough for the idea to be taken seriously.

Thus, the big question: What if? What would life be like if Hamilton and the Red Sox actually hook up?

It wouldn't be very good. The union would bring back memories of Carl Crawford's union with the Red Sox back in December 2010. His contract, of course, ended up becoming a gigantic liability. If the Sox were to sign Hamilton, all signs would point toward his contract becoming an even bigger liability.

Here's why.


Now's Not the Time to Strike

These days, Carl Crawford is viewed as a broken-down player who may never recapture his old form as one of baseball's best players.

But at the time the Red Sox signed him in December 2010, you'll recall that there was not a single shred of doubt that Crawford indeed was one of baseball's best players. 

Crawford's 2010 season, in particular, was one for the books. He went into free agency fresh off a year that saw him hit .307 with a career-high .851 OPS and a career-high 19 home runs. He also stole 47 bases, scored 110 runs and racked up 90 RBI. He was also as good as ever in left field and was finally rewarded with a Gold Glove.

Per FanGraphs, only two players posted higher WARs than Crawford in 2010: Eventual AL MVP Josh Hamilton and Evan Longoria.

It's not like Crawford was heading into free agency as a one-year wonder. Between 2006 and 2010, he hit .303 with an .812 OPS and averaged 48 steals and 14 home runs per season. He hit a peak in 2010, but he was consistently productive in the years leading up to 2010.

Somebody was going to give Crawford a massive contract. It happened to be the Red Sox, and the reaction was largely positive. Then-GM Theo Epstein looked like the smartest man in the room at the winter meetings.

"[Bleeping] Theo," said one GM, via Sports Illustrated. "What a brilliant move."

The reviews wouldn't be so great if the Red Sox were to sign Hamilton, and for good reason. Whereas it was very clear in 2010 that Crawford was great and getting better, it's very clear now that Hamilton is a flawed player who may be getting worse.

Hamilton looked like he was going to have a monster season in 2012 when he got off to a torrid start in April and early May, but it didn't pan out. He had his OPS as high as 1.336 on May 11, but he finished the year by hitting .252 with an .822 OPS over his final 118 games.

Hamilton wants to be paid like an elite slugger, but for the bulk of the 2012 season, he was really no better than Alex Gordon (.822 OPS) or Garrett Jones (.832 OPS). 

It's not like we're talking about a case of serious bad luck, either. Hamilton did well enough when he put the ball in play over his final 118 games in 2012, compiling a decent enough BABIP of .299, but his problem all season long was actually putting the ball in play.

Hamilton's plate discipline was atrocious in 2012. He saw only 3.69 pitches per plate appearance, and he set a new career high with a 25.5 strikeout percentage. According to FanGraphs, he had a new career-high swinging-strike percentage of 20 percent, and he chased 45.4 percent of the pitches he saw outside of the strike zone.

Both of those figures, by the way, were highs among all qualified hitters. In terms of discipline, Hamilton was right there with Delmon Young, and that's not a place any hitter should want to be.

If somebody is going to pay Hamilton what he wants, it will be because of his monstrous 2010 season and his excellent showing in the first half of the 2012 season. The justification will be that when he's right, he's unstoppable.

Maybe so, but committing a huge pile of cash to Hamilton based on flashes is not a good idea. A team should only want to pay him based on his body of work, which is nowhere near as strong as his various flashes.

Elite sluggers—i.e., guys like Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun—should be capable of posting OPS' close to 1.000 on an annual basis. Hamilton has had one year in which he posted an OPS over 1.000, but beyond that one year, his OPS has gone as low as .741 and only as high as .930.

And the more you look at it, the clearer it is that Hamilton's 2010 season is a pretty huge outlier. He posted a career-low 16.6 strikeout percentage and finished with an absurdly high .390 BABIP. His K rate has stuck much closer to 20 every other year, and his BABIP has been right around .320 in three of the last four years.

When it comes to long-term contracts, the most important thing is predictability. In the case of Hamilton, the question is basically how many more monstrous 2010 seasons he may have in him, as that's the kind of production it would take to justify the $25 million-per-year contract he's going to command.

And the answer is zero. Hamilton was very, very good for one year, but every other year, his flaws have effectively held his potential down. 

When the Red Sox signed Crawford, there was little warning that he would fall so far so fast, much less come down with serious injuries.

If they were to sign Hamilton, the situation would be decidedly different. The Sox would be signing a very good slugger, but they'd also be signing a slugger with a ton of red flags on the field who would have virtually no chance of living up to his annual salary.

And this is to say nothing of the other red flags that come with Hamilton.


The Health Concerns Are Clear and Present

When the Red Sox signed Crawford in 2010, they were signing a player who was both talented and durable. Between 2003 and 2010, he had played in at least 150 games six times. In the other two years, he played in 143 games and 109 games.

The low point was his 2008 season, in which Crawford was limited, primarily due to a freak finger injury that he suffered on a checked swing. He bounced right back from that and played in 156 games in 2009 and 154 games in 2010.

Durability, meanwhile, is not something that Hamilton is known for. 

Hamilton has played in 647 games over the last five seasons, which amounts to an average of 129 games per season. He's played in over 150 games in a season exactly once in his career, and he's coming off a year in which he was limited to 148 games despite not suffering any serious injuries.

It was more a season of nagging injuries for Hamilton. Subscribers can look up his 2012 injury history on Baseball Prospectus and see a list of ailments reminiscent of that one kid in elementary school who was always going to the nurse's office. A contusion one day, tightness the next, a migraine the day after that and four incidents listed as simply "General Medical" ailments.

To be fair, some of this stuff was on the more serious end of the spectrum, such as the time Hamilton had to be hospitalized in June with an intestinal problem. Other stuff was just plain weird, such as the vision problems he experienced in September that were supposedly caused by too many energy drinks.

I'm not going to call Hamilton out for lacking toughness. Baseball is a grind, and if you can't play, you can't play. In his case, health problems come with the territory.

But while these things shouldn't necessarily outrage anybody, they would definitely concern me if I'm John Henry. The constant state of duress Hamilton's body was under in 2012 and in years past tells Henry that he's only going to be good for so many games per season, and that's only going to make it harder for him to provide good value for his contract.

Plus, there's always the fear of a more serious injury occurring at a moment's notice. Such was the case in 2010 when a rib-cage injury cost him the final month of the season. In 2011, a broken arm cost him 35 games. In 2009, he lost a significant amount of time to a sports hernia and a back injury.

Bear in mind that Hamilton's body wasn't exactly a temple for a few years when he was going through serious problems with drug and alcohol addiction. I bring it up not to be mean-spirited, but to point out an unfortunate reality of his situation. When his body should have been in its prime, it was being weakened.

Also bear in mind that he's not getting any younger. Hamilton is the same age as Crawford now, and he'll turn 32 in early May. That's right about at that age when some hitters start to lose it both physically and in terms of their general skills.

When Crawford came aboard, there was little to suggest that his performance would be so awful. There was also little to suggest that he was bound to get hurt and miss 32 games in his first season.

Once again, the story would be completely different if the Sox were to sign Hamilton. The signs would be there not to expect an elite performance, and the signs would also be there not to expect durability. They'd be walking right into an ultimate "I told you so" situation.

There's a chance things would get just as bad off the field.


Would the Pressure of Playing in Boston Get to Him?

Crawford certainly had the skills the Sox were looking for when they signed him in 2010, and he came with the right kind of character for the city of Boston as well.

We know this because the Sox came to that conclusion after doing exhaustive research on Crawford. 

Last February, Crawford found out that the Red Sox had monitored him quite extensively off the field for months before they decided to sign him. Epstein hinted that they basically privately investigated him, which prompted Crawford to say he was "creeped out a little bit."

Despite that, all signs pointed toward Crawford having the psychological fortitude to handle playing in a market as intense as Boston after nearly a decade in one of the calmest markets in baseball.

We now know otherwise. 

Crawford kept quiet in 2011, but he eventually opened up and ripped departed Sox manager Terry Francona for the way he handled him. Just a couple weeks ago, Crawford told ESPNLosAngeles.com that the pressure to perform in Boston led him to try and play through injuries he really shouldn't have been trying to play through.

Getting out of Boston, he said, was a relief:

It's no secret it was a tough year in Boston. It's one of those things I wouldn't want any player to go through, so for me to be able to get out of that situation is definitely a relief. I won't have to go through all the stress and stuff every day that they were putting us through.

Crawford's narrative is more proof that the long-held notion that some guys just aren't cut out for Boston is true. It's a tough place to play, and it's eaten many good players (and just plain good guys) alive over the years.

And let's face it: It's abundantly clear that Boston isn't the best fit for Hamilton's personality. He appears to be exactly the kind of guy who would be eaten alive in Boston.

By all accounts, Hamilton is a great guy most days. But Rangers reliever Mike Adams hinted pretty strongly that Hamilton's temperament is not consistent from one day to the next.

Here's what Adams said on "Inside Pitch" on Sirius XM's MLB Network Radio, via ESPNDallas.com:

Josh is a special talent and sometimes you have to let Josh figure it out himself. He's a different guy sometimes. Every day you hope that Josh comes to the ballpark, shows up and plays like Josh Hamilton.

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.

There's certainly a bit of gray area here, as it could be that Adams was merely implying that Hamilton isn't always the same guy on the field. If so, he just said something everyone already knew.

But the notion that Hamilton isn't always the same guy off the field has some legs. For example, there was that time he threw third-base coach Dave Anderson under the bus for sending him home on a shallow pop fly in 2011, which ultimately resulted in the broken arm that cost Hamilton so much time.

"It was just a stupid play," Hamilton said, via The Dallas Morning News. "I definitely shouldn't have done it. They had a good angle to cut me off where I was going. It was a little too aggressive. The whole time I was watching the play and I was listening. I was like, 'Dude, I don't want to go. Something is going to happen.' But I listened to my coach and I went."

There was also the exit interview that Hamilton did when the Rangers' season ended this year. According to Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com, he criticized the fans for booing him as he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and a GIDP in the Rangers' loss to the Baltimore Orioles in the AL Wild Card Game, and he also chose to plead the fifth when he was asked about whether his eyes were still bothering him.

Incidents like these became headline news simply because they involved Josh Hamilton. If these things were to happen in Boston, they'd be headline news for days, maybe even weeks. They'd be blown way out of proportion, as many baseball storylines in Boston invariably are.

That's just how it is in Boston. The writers can be mean, and there are a lot more beat writers following the Red Sox around than there are with most teams.

Worse, they occasionally cater to a fanbase that isn't known for being forgiving. It's just another thing that makes the pressure of playing in Boston so much greater than that of most other cities not named New York.

Crawford couldn't hack the pressure of playing in Boston, and this was after the Red Sox did enough creepy investigating to come to a sound conclusion that he could deal with it. It's impossible to imagine how a similar investigation of Hamilton would yield the same conclusion, so this is yet another area in which the Red Sox would be rushing headlong into a potentially disastrous situation.

And unlike with Crawford, the Red Sox would not be able to wash their hands of said disastrous situation.


There'd Be No Moving Him

The Red Sox should thank their lucky stars for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

If it weren't for them, the Sox would currently be looking at paying Crawford $102.5 million over the next five seasons. That's a lot of money to pay for a guy who had a WAR of 0.6 in the two seasons he played in Boston, according to FanGraphs.

If the Dodgers hadn't come along, the Red Sox would have been stuck with Crawford, not to mention Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez. If the status quo held, he would have given them very little production while taking up roughly 10 percent of their total payroll.

If the Red Sox were to sign Hamilton to a contract worth $25 million annually, he'd be taking up far more than that. And if they were to one day come to a conclusion that he needed to go, they'd be out of luck.

There are two reasons why the Red Sox were able to unload Crawford. The first reason is the most obvious one, and it's that the Dodgers just don't give a you-know-what. They have money and want to make it rain, so taking on what was left of Crawford's contract came with few concerns for them.

The other reason the Sox were able to move Crawford is because of where he is at this point in his career. He has two lost years in his rear-view mirror, but he's still young enough to have a few prime years left. And since he was a never a good fit in Boston, it was worth gambling on him being a fit in Los Angeles.

It was a good gamble by the Dodgers, as they have a spot at the top of their lineup for Crawford and a ballpark that suits his game much better than Fenway Park. The NL West in general is loaded with ballparks that Crawford should find to his liking.

Once again, it would be a totally different story with Hamilton. If the Sox were to try to get rid of him two years down the line, they'd be doing so because Hamilton is injured, underperforming or both.

And he won't be 31, as Crawford was when the Red Sox traded him. Hamilton would be 33 or 34.

That's not a good age for a slugger, and the Red Sox certainly wouldn't be able to distract teams from looking at Hamilton's track record both before and after going to Boston. In its entirety, Hamilton's narrative would send teams a very clear message: "Stay away."

That's a message that the Red Sox can heed right here and now. Signing Hamilton is undoubtedly an intriguing idea, but it's not a good idea.

All they need to do is think back to Carl Crawford's contract and how it panned out...and then imagine a situation 10 times worse.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.


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