Josh Hamilton left the winter meetings without a contract, which isn’t all too surprising, but the manner in which the market for the slugger has adjusted is alarming.
We knew teams, even ones with big money, would be leery of Hamilton given his past of injury and substance abuse and the risk that comes along with both. We also knew that perennial free-agent players like the Yankees would be sitting this one out. Even the pinstripes can find time to be frugal these days.
With that said, the value of player contracts continues to rise. The average salary for a Major Leaguer in 2012 was a record $3.2 million. The increase wasn’t only enjoyed by superstars as the minimum deal increased by 15.9% from the previous year.
The business of owning a professional sports franchise isn’t recession proof, but the business of handing out contracts to big-name free agents has shown to be. Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder both received more than $200 million on the open market last offseason. The Tigers, who signed Fielder, don’t exactly enjoy the huge market benefits of playing in New York or Los Angeles.
So if money is there, despite what owners and general managers might lead you to believe, why hasn’t someone written an oversized check for Hamilton?
There are a few reasons why Hamilton hasn’t added nine figures to his bank account ... yet.
- The Rangers are doing a Texas two-step with Zack Greinke, who is clearly their priority over Hamilton. The Dodgers have reportedly fallen out of the race for Greinke a bit, which seems to lower the odds that enough money will be there for Hamilton to remain with the Rangers.
- Seattle would love to sign Hamilton, but would especially love to do so on a short-term deal worth between $60 million and $75 million. He is unlikely to agree to that short of a contract, and if he were, there will undoubtedly be a large market club closer to a World Series that would swoop in and gladly add him to their lineup.
- Since Hamilton emerged and became a perennial MVP candidate, people surmised that the Yankees and Red Sox would go to battle against one another for his services. Instead, New York is looking to cut corners and Boston has spent money elsewhere.
- There is no such thing as restricted free agency in Major League Baseball, but the market for Hamilton may have taken a dip earlier this week when it was reported that he will allow the Rangers to match any offer he receives. This complicates things for any team interested in Hamilton that may also like another free agent, or be involved in trade talks.
Those are all valid reasons for why Hamilton hasn’t had people knocking down his door with the six or seven-year deal that he and his agent are coveting. On the other hand, there are a few cases in which teams have demonstrated that they will spend freely on questions marks.
The Red Sox gave the combination of Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino a total of $78 million over three years. People are gushing over how well Napoli fits at Fenway Park, but Ben Cherington could have offered Hamilton $20-$25 million annually ($1-$6 million less than Napoli and Victorino will make together) and made a move to re-sign James Loney to play first base.
Of course, Cherington is trying to avoid “the quick fix” as he attempts a quick rebuild in Boston. If it takes a few years for the Red Sox to contend in the American League again, two $13 million salaries look a whole lot better than one $25 million deal. Still, Hamilton is head-and-shoulders ahead of Napoli and Victorino and would also have had a more profound effect on the rest of the lineup.
Would you rather have Napoli and Victorino for three years at $78 million, or pay Hamilton $150 million over six years?
If I’m a team like the Red Sox, with established hitters in Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, I’d sign the superstar in hopes of an immediate turnaround.
Hamilton may not play 160 games, but he’s a near lock to hit .290/.345/.590 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI over the next three years (at least). His value as a defender could be leveraged in a few years when Ortiz retires and the designated hitter spot opens up.
The market for Hamilton may not be as robust as we imagined it would be two years ago, or even midway through the 2012 season, but it’s not because the money isn’t here.
In most cases, teams have simply overthought the free agent process.