Will Josh Hamilton sign with an unexpected team?
The teams interested in signing free-agent outfielder Josh Hamilton are establishing themselves as the offseason hot stove begins warming up.
Hamilton could return to the Texas Rangers. But if not, the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves are all names having been linked to the best available hitter on the open market.
But there are a few other clubs that could also join the bidding for Hamilton, especially if the market pushes down his reported desire for a seven-year, $175 million contract. These are teams that are either presumed to consider Hamilton unaffordable or would become even better with him in their lineup.
Here are five teams that are dark horses in the race to sign the 31-year-old outfielder for next season. And for whichever team gets Hamilton, the competitive balance in either the American League or National League could tip in their favor.
Perhaps the Milwaukee Brewers shouldn't be listed as a dark horse here, since the team has been linked to Josh Hamilton in some rumors this offseason.
However, I think the Brewers have to be considered a less likely candidate because Milwaukee is one of the smallest markets in MLB. However, the team did have a top-10 payroll before the season began.
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin has scoffed at rumors of pursuing Hamilton, joking that they'd need a connection with a major bank to fund the reported deal the outfielder is seeking. Milwaukee probably does need those contract terms to come down a bit before seriously pursuing him.
As it appears likely that Hamilton won't get a deal that large, however, the Brewers are probably in the mix. His left-handed bat would fit nicely between Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez in the lineup. The only question is whether he can play center field for the duration of his contract.
As with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Seattle Mariners have been mentioned as a possible destination.
And like Doug Melvin, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik also plays down the notion of his team being a player this offseason. Additionally, Zduriencik doesn't want to get so focused on chasing Hamilton that he takes his eye off other free agents the Mariners could use.
Of all the teams in pursuit of Hamilton, Seattle might be the club that needs him the most. The Mariners' leading home run hitter this past season was Kyle Seager with 20. Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders were next with 19 homers.
Put Hamilton's average season of 35 home runs and 120 RBI in the middle of that batting order and the Mariners have a completely different lineup. The former AL MVP might even have a chance at those numbers playing in Seattle, as the fences at Safeco Field will be moved in next season.
Still, the Mariners' home park was the least hitter-friendly stadium in MLB in 2012, according to ESPN.com, and that could be a tough sell for Hamilton.
Josh Hamilton might not be the ideal fit for the Washington Nationals. Michael Bourn probably suits their lineup better as an outstanding defensive center fielder and leadoff hitter.
But if Bourn ultimately goes elsewhere, why not add some significant run production to the middle of the batting order?
Hamilton would likely play left field in D.C., with Bryce Harper playing center and Jayson Werth in right. The Nats could then either trade Michael Morse—perhaps for the leadoff help they would still need—or decide not to re-sign Adam LaRoche and move Morse to first base.
Harper batting second, followed by Ryan Zimmerman in the third spot, Hamilton hitting cleanup and Morse in the No. 5 hole would be a strong foursome. With Werth possibly hitting sixth or leading off, the Nats would have a deep batting order capable of tiring out any opposing pitching staff. And if LaRoche returns, perhaps he hits fifth with Zimmerman batting No. 4 between him and Hamilton.
Either way, manager Davey Johnson has a nice right-left-right combination in the heart of his batting order to go with one of the best pitching staffs in MLB.
Here's the team that inspired this slideshow. Could the World Series champions actually add the best available free-agent hitter on the market?
The San Francisco Giants certainly have an opening for Josh Hamilton. He could play center field if the team doesn't re-sign Angel Pagan. But the likely preference is for Hamilton to be the Giants' left fielder while Pagan returns as the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter.
Can the team afford both? The Giants had MLB's eighth-highest payroll coming into this season, and that figures to go up even if general manager Brian Sabean simply keeps his championship team intact.
San Francisco has won World Series titles without assembling $150 million payrolls. But as the Los Angeles Dodgers and their megabucks ownership put together a behemoth, do the Giants need to add a player like Hamilton to stay ahead?
Or is this team already far enough in front that signing complementary players is what's necessary to maintain its lead?
OK, if we're going to talk about dark horses, let's really talk about dark horses. Let's talk about mystery markets.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have not been linked to Josh Hamilton in any fashion this offseason. But the Bucs could use him. Oh, could they use him.
Pittsburgh was looking for a left fielder throughout the season. Neither Alex Presley, Jose Tabata nor Travis Snider were the answer. The Pirates couldn't do much better than Hamilton taking over that position.
The lineup had some power with both Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez hitting at least 30 home runs, and Garrett Jones not far behind with 27. Add Hamilton's 35 homers and the Pirates have an intimidating middle of the batting order.
Hamilton might make the Pirates lineup a bit too left-handed. That might also push McCutchen to the cleanup spot, where he might not be ideally suited. But if Clint Hurdle had to bat two southpaws back-to-back in the middle of the order, I think he would take the increased run production.
The Pirates need to do something big to show Pittsburgh and the rest of MLB that they're willing to get better—that they won't collapse in the second half for the third consecutive year.
Is this team serious about ending its streak of 20 straight losing seasons? If so, this is how the Pirates do it.
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