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Josh Hamilton trade: Texas Rangers are getting a role player, not an All Star

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Josh Hamilton is returning to Texas. Expectations should be tempered.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Josh Hamilton trade:  The Texas Rangers and the Anaheim Angels are reportedly continuing to work on a trade that would send Josh Hamilton to the Rangers for nothing.  Hamilton is owed $83 million for the 2015-17 seasons, and while reports vary on what Texas will pick up, the high figure has been $15 million.  Evan Grant says he believes the actual amount will be "far less than $15 million."

There's been excitement over this.  Twitter exploded.  There was much discussion about Hamilton's return here on LSB.  And I thought about Herschel Walker.

For those of you who forgot (or who aren't Dallas Cowboys fans), the Cowboys brought Herschel Walker back to Dallas, his original NFL team, as a 34 year old in 1996.  Walker spent two seasons with the Cowboys as a third down back and a kick return specialist.  Things more or less worked out because Walker was near the end of his career, and he was coming in to be a role player.  He wasn't the guy who rushed for 1,514 yards for the Cowboys years earlier, and who was dealt to Minnesota in one of the biggest trades in NFL history, and no one was expecting him to be anything close to that.

That's how I view Josh Hamilton at this point -- as 1996 Herschel Walker.  Thinking about it, there are quite a few parallels between Hamilton and Walker.  They were both preternaturally talented players, incredible athletes who were identified as transcendent players at an early age -- Walker was the top college football recruit his senior year in high school, while Hamilton was the #1 pick in the MLB draft as a high school senior.  They were prodigies whose exceptional physical gifts helped compensate for what many observers felt was a lack of passion for their respective games.  And they both grappled with personal demons, with Hamilton having his well-chronicled fight with substance abuse, and Walker having disclosed dealing with mental health issues that had him contemplating suicide.

But I digress...

One of the common refrains I've seen about the Hamilton deal is that it represents significant upside potential for the Rangers.  What if, its asked, Hamilton can be close to the Hamilton of old?  What if coming back to Texas gets him in a better place, personally, and he responds by playing like the Hamilton of the Rangers days?

The Rangers are getting an $83 million player, and only paying $15 million (or less, if Evan is right)...how can that not be a win for the Rangers?

Except, of course, Josh Hamilton isn't an $83 million player anymore.  If he were, the Angels wouldn't be paying the bulk of his deal to give him away.

How much would Josh Hamilton get if he were a free agent right now?  The 3 years, $15 million number that has been bandied about as what the Rangers might pay?  I doubt it.  I wouldn't offer him that much.  I doubt any other team would, either.

And we can talk about the distractions, the drama, the potential of a substance abuse suspension constantly hanging over him, the "soft" issues.  But let's forget about that.  Let's just focus on the on-the-field, performance issues.

Josh Hamilton isn't MVP Josh Hamilton anymore.  He's not the guy who hit 4 home runs in 2012.  He's not the transcendent talent that had people comparing him to Mickey Mantle.  One of the common complaints when the Rangers let Hamilton walk was that they didn't replace Hamilton's bat in the middle of the lineup...but that ignores the reality that, even if the Rangers had kept Hamilton, they'd need to replace his bat in the middle of the lineup, because there was little reason to believe he was going to maintain that level of production.

We need to be honest about who Josh Hamilton is now:  a broken down outfielder who turns 34 next month.  He's a guy who played only 89 games last season, and who has a .255/.316/.426 slash line the past two years.  Let's put this in perspective:

2013-14 offensive performance:

Josh Hamilton -- 1017 plate appearances, .255/.316/.426

Jason Castro -- 1003 plate appearances, .248/.317/.423

Alex Rios -- 1183 plate appearances, .279/.318/.417

Martin Prado -- 1237 plate appearances, .282/.327/.415

Brian Dozier -- 1330 plate appearances, .243/.330/.415

Josh Hamilton isn't Josh Hamilton anymore.  He's Jason Castro.  He's a less durable Alex Rios.  He doesn't hit that much, and he's not too good in the field anymore.  And there's zero reason to believe that he's going to get better going forward.

Yes, yes, I've heard the arguments that he'll have a support system in Texas, he will be more comfortable here, and so he's more likely to replicate his past success with that in place.

But he's in his age 34 season.  He's at an age when players get worse, not better, and oftentimes get worse quickly.  And he's not only in his age 34 season, he's coming off shoulder surgery, which is a pretty freaking big deal for a hitter, particularly a hitter like Hamilton, with his "see the ball, hit the ball" approach.  There's very little reason to think a 34 year old coming off two down years, and then coming back from shoulder surgery, is going to get better...or even stay the same.  The arrow is pointing down.

And this shouldn't be a surprise.  I wrote about this 3 and a half years ago.  Even ignoring the injury issues and the substance abuse issues, players with Hamilton's approach don't age well.  Vlad Guerrero is the most comparable player I can think of to Hamilton -- five tool player, incredible talent, fast, strong, big arm, and with an approach that involved him swinging at anything he could see.  Vlad Guerrero, from age 34-36 -- the same years the Rangers will have Hamilton under his current contract -- was worth 0.9 fWAR.  When that quick twitch and the bat speed slow down, players with that approach get bad, fast.  I compared Hamilton to Guerrero and Alfonso Soriano in that blog post, and concluded:

Hamilton is better than Soriano, not as good as Guerrero, but I suspect that his aging pattern will look similar.  If he stays healthy (a huge if with him anyway), Hamilton will probably be solid in 2012, 2013, maybe 2014.  But around 2014-15, I expect Hamilton to start sliding, and when the slide comes, it will be dramatic and ugly.  Between injuries and skill deterioration, I expect Hamilton to be done as a regular by 2016.

I think I may have over-estimated how long Hamilton would stay good.  Hamilton may still have some value, but to the extent he has value, it is in a role similar to what Mitch Moreland has filled the past few years -- a decent platoon DH who can fill in in the field occasionally, and who you should expect to miss significant time due to injuries.

And that seems like the realistic upside that Hamilton offers the Rangers, at this point -- not that he can be close to the god-tier Hamilton we all remember, but that he can be 2011-13 Mitch Moreland.

My feelings about this deal are complicated.  And they aren't all logical.  I mean, I get that this is a low-risk deal.  Whether it is $15 million, or less, Texas isn't paying him much.  Maybe he can help.  And I understand that -- a platoon DH has value, especially if Evan is right and the Rangers are paying him significantly less than $5 million per year.

But then, I think about what this means for Ryan Rua.

There's a big part of me that thinks it sucks that Ryan Rua may lose his job because of what appears to be a sideshow.  The response, of course, is that we shouldn't be making decisions based on Ryan Rua.  But at the same time, I look at Rua, and I see a late round pick who no one believed in, who was sent to Hickory a couple of years ago to help fill out a lineup that was stacked with teenagers with high upsides.  Rua's job was to show up, set a good example for guys who got signing bonuses 10 or 20 or 100 or 200 times what he got, make less than minimum wage, and be happy for the opportunity.

And Rua did all that.  And he did all that while mashing the ball, establishing himself as a prospect.  And then he got promoted to Frisco late in the 2013 season and failed.  People wrote him off at that point.  Hell, I wrote him off at that point.  I figured he was a college player who got exposed when he wasn't facing low-A pitchers.

But he responded with a quality 2014 season, hitting at AA, hitting at AAA, earning a promotion to the majors.  He came to spring training this year and won the starting left field job.  This is a guy who gets marks for being coachable, for making adjustments, for figuring it out and making himself a major leaguer.  Is Ryan Rua ever going to be a star?  I doubt it.  But can he be a solid, contributing major leaguer?  Yes, I think so.  And he's the type of guy who minor league coaches can point to in a few years, when he's an established major leaguer, and say, "This guy went from non-prospect to major leaguer because he worked hard and made adjustments and, quite simply, got it."

And so it kind of pisses me off to think he's going to potentially lose his opportunity to a guy who, to me, looks like a broken-down shell of his former self.  A guy who probably spent more on cocaine than Ryan Rua has made in his entire career playing baseball.

I believe Hamilton is unlikely to be significantly better than Ryan Rua over the next three years, so there's a baseball aspect to this.  But from an emotional standpoint, it just doesn't feel right to me, the notion that Rua potentially gets shafted because the Rangers decided they wanted to bring one more clown to the circus.

And maybe that shouldn't factor into how I look at this.  But it does.

Tepid went hard on this issue on Twitter last night, and I get it.  Tepid knows the Ryan Ruas of the game.  He spends time with them, with their families.  He knows what they go through to try to get to where Rua is now.  And I have no doubt that it offends him that Rua, or Jake Smolinski, or Jared Hoying, someone who has busted their ass just to get an opportunity, is going to lose his shot (or, in the case of Hoying, a chance of a shot) in the majors so that Josh Hamilton -- a guy who, from the outside, seems to act like a guy who couldn't give less of a fuck -- can take his place.

I don't know.

Maybe it will all turn out well.  Maybe Hamilton will get here, stay healthy, be productive, help the team win games.  This is probably Josh Hamilton's last chance, and this is probably Josh Hamilton's last major league team.  To quote Taylor Swift, with Josh Hamilton and the Rangers, I think its gonna be forever, or its gonna go down in flames.

It would be nice if the story has a happy ending.

But I'm not betting on it.