Let the Josh Hamilton Derby begin. The term "high-risk/high-reward" seems to have been created for this very situation. With the beginning of both November and the free-agent signing period, attention is drawn unavoidably to Hamilton, the best position player available on the current market. The slugging outfielder, most recently an employee of the Texas Rangers, is indisputably a five-tool player. On a given day, he can be the best player in the game, not just the game in which he is playing, but in all of baseball. But Hamilton is human, probably a bit more human than the average talent-hunting general manager would like. He has a history of substance abuse, and although the vast majority of that activity was well in the past, whenever Hamilton falls off the wagon, his relapse, however momentary, is invariably highly publicized.
Of more immediate concern to potential employers is a pattern of injuries. Only once in Hamilton's Major League career has he played in more than 150 games. That was in 2008. He will turn 32 in May, so it is not as though his peak years are automatically in his future. And he didn't exactly put on a salary drive at the end of 2012. He missed five of six games on a crucial late-season road trip due to blurred vision, which was caused by cornea inflammation. Hamilton said too much caffeine was to blame. Hamilton struck out 18 times in his last 42 at-bats of the regular season and in the final game of the regular season, the center fielder committed an error on a routine fly ball that allowed the Oakland A's to take the lead over the Rangers. That game, won by Oakland, decided the American League West championship. The Rangers were relegated to a one-game Wild Card playoff, and Hamilton went 0-for-4 in a season-ending loss to the Baltimore Orioles. Despite his late-season slide, Hamilton had 43 home runs and 128 RBIs in 148 games, placing him second in both categories to Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers. Hamilton's .577 slugging percentage also placed him second to Cabrera, and his .930 OPS was fifth in the league. Hamilton's production has outweighed his relative lack of durability in the past. He was the AL Most Valuable Player in 2010. Despite playing in 133 games, his numbers -- .359/.411/.633 -- were so imposing that his overall value could not be disputed. The fact that he was injured while running into a wall provided testimony to the way he played the game. In that season, and in 2011, Hamilton was an integral part of a Texas team that twice won the AL West and the AL pennant. Just as Hamilton helped the Rangers win, the overall performance of his team served to reinforce his value. The Rangers created a supportive atmosphere for Hamilton, and he has said repeatedly that his first choice would be to return to Texas. For this reason, Hamilton said the Rangers would receive the first chance to secure his services. This was an offer that the Rangers politely declined. General manager Jon Daniels said that Texas was still interested in keeping Hamilton, but that it would not make a preemptive offer to him. "I think he's going to go out there, test the market and then come back to us," Daniels said. "No door's been closed. We're also very realistic about when a star player hits free agency at this point, the history of them returning to their original club. I think we have to prepare both ways and prepare the club for the possibility that he's not back. But we haven't closed any doors." Thus, there has been no shortage of conjecture, speculation and general reading of the tea leaves regarding Hamilton's future. One club mentioned prominently, for instance, has been the Milwaukee Brewers. But the Brewers led the National League in runs scored in 2012. Their problem was the bullpen, and they will have to replace two starting pitchers from their initial 2012 rotation. That set of circumstances does not appear to make them an ideal free-agent landing spot for Hamilton. He does appear to be a better fit for an AL club, on which his occasional use as a designated hitter would limit his exposure to potential injury. Some of the clubs with the financial resources to make a splendid offer to Hamilton are either rebuilding or are seemingly set with expensive outfielders already on hand. It only takes one club, though, to make the kind of five-year, $100-plus-million offer that Hamilton's talent would seem to dictate. But this is the essential quandary that the free agency of Josh Hamilton presents for potential employers. His ability argues in favor of a lavish, long-term contract. But his history says maybe not.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.