Josh Hamilton's MLB Return Has Stifled Expectations as He Seeks Redemption

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistMay 22, 2015

AP Images

This is Josh Hamilton’s final stand.

By all major league accounts over the previous two seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, Hamilton’s star has burned out. While it once brightly illuminated the Texas sky, his arrival in Orange County signaled its ugly and disappointing descent.

That marriage, tokened by a five-year contract worth $135 million with its signing bonus, teetered from the start when Hamilton hit .204 in his first month as an Angel. It completely unraveled in April, when an MLB arbitrator ruled he would not be suspended for a self-reported offseason substance-abuse relapse, meaning the Angels would have to pay his full salary while he recovered from shoulder surgery—at home in Texas and away from the team, of course.

The Texas Rangers caught Hamilton on the rebound, the Angels trading him to his former team while still paying him alimony as he prepares for his return to the majors. With his rehab assignment scheduled to run through the weekend, Hamilton is expected to debut Monday in Cleveland, giving the Rangers a sliver of relevance in what is already shaping up to be a forgettable season.

"All signs point to Monday in Cleveland for Josh Hamilton's season debut with the #Rangers."- @jonmorosi

— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) May 20, 2015

This will be a redemption story of sorts. It’s been told before with Hamilton as the subject, only this time, there is far less hype and a ceiling on the expectations with virtually no leash for him to reel in at his leisure.

Hamilton appears ready to join the Rangers, baseball-wise. He went 16-for-44 (.364) with a mammoth home run and five doubles during his minor league assignment through Friday. Looking at those numbers, along with the comments coming from the Rangers, would suggest that he is again ready to contribute with his bat.

It's a situation best approached with cautious optimism, though. Both parties are aware that, for Hamilton, this is still spring training. Results matter less than health and quality plate appearances.

Two-run homer for Josh Hamilton. Landed in the pool pic.twitter.com/EcSSd0TZJd

— Katy Clarke (@katyclarke) May 20, 2015

Plus, there are still the memories of his last two seasons in the big leagues, when Hamilton, who turned 34 on Thursday, was only slightly better than league average. While his health might be intact, his expected impact has been reduced to right around that same level for now.

“The report was good. Not so much the box score, but felt like his swings are better, his takes are better, his at-bats were better. He's made progress,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels told reporters this week. “I don't put a whole lot into, it's kind of like on March 10 evaluating a spring training game. You don't want to overdo it.”

Hamilton is trying to go the same safe route in evaluating his progress and readiness.

“In the past obviously I would’ve forced the issue to get back. I’m not forcing the issue now,” Hamilton told Michael Florek of the Dallas Morning News. “I’m trying to grow up a bit." 

The Rangers and their fans already seem to understand where Hamilton’s stature rests. He is no longer an MVP candidate. Those days vanished as soon as he departed Texas for Anaheim, California. Sensing as much, the Rangers did not even make a real effort to re-sign their former superstar during his free agency in 2012.

It is possible Hamilton won’t be a bust. Maybe he can be productive, which would not be absurdly difficult considering Texas’ five left fielders have combined to hit .197/.305/.347 with five home runs entering Saturday. If Hamilton manages to accomplish that goal, this could be a win for him and the team.

For the first time in his career, Hamilton is not dealing with the expectations plastered on a former No. 1 overall draft pick. Even after returning from previous drug suspension, the expectations followed him because hopes were that he could still be a star and a wonderful story of overcoming one’s personal demons.

Steve Nesius/Associated Press

Expectations still exist upon his return to the Rangers, but this time, they are significantly lower, more in line with someone just hoping to be relatively productive again. That is why the Rangers are paying him slightly more than $6 million over three seasons, while the Angels are paying him about $68 million to go away and play for a rival.

That is where baseball life now stands for Hamilton. So little is expected that if he becomes an off-the-field problem again, sheering ties with him will be simple and relatively inexpensive, if there happens to be any cost at all, for the Rangers.

Then, Hamilton would be left to fend for himself, shunned by the game he loves. The risk is now all on him.

“I need baseball. I love baseball,” Hamilton said at his introductory press conference last month. “I’m making changes in my life because at some point baseball is going to end and I want to be OK when it does.”

What we know now is the end is near. Exactly how far off depends on what Hamilton can do for the Rangers, and himself, over the next four months.

All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.