Buyer Beware: Hamilton Deal Shows the Risk of Free Agency

By Dave Martin, Epoch Times
April 28, 2015 Updated: April 28, 2015    

With five-time All-Star Josh Hamilton being traded/given away by the Angels, who are still reportedly going to pay roughly $68 million of the remaining $80 million owed to Hamilton back to the Rangers, it ends one of the worst free-agent deals ever.

It didn’t look that way when Hamilton signed it, though.

Just two and a half years ago, the Angels agreed to a five-year, $125 million contract to ink the then 31-year-old former MVP to provide some protection for Albert Pujols and Mike Trout in what looked like a manager’s dream of a lineup.

The dream quickly turned into a nightmare, as is the case among some of these high-risk deals.

Although usually we think of A-Rod’s albatross $275 million agreement, which pays him through to age 42 (2017 season), when discussing the worst free-agent contracts ever given out, Hamilton’s deal, and his play since signing it, has largely flown under the radar. Until now. (While we’re at it, who actually thought Hamilton would be given away before A-Rod?)

Hamilton, the former first overall pick of the Tampa Rays in 1999, hit a career-worst .250 with 21 home runs in 151 games in 2013—his first year in Los Angeles. Last season, after a good start in April, he ended up missing 73 games with thumb and shoulder injuries and never regained his early season form.

Then in the offseason, Hamilton, who once served a three-year minor league suspension for drug abuse, admitted to having a relapse this past offseason. It was then that the relationship seemed doomed.

After all, the Angels signed Hamilton for his abilities at the plate. When he couldn’t swing the lumber effectively anymore, he became a liability—an expensive one at that. And when he added to his misery by admitting to a relapse, there was no turning back.

So the Angels, recognizing that the relationship was doomed, bit the bullet on the roughly $68 million remaining on his deal not to have him as a member of the team anymore.

It’s quite a fall for the once most-feared hitter in the game.

In between his three-year minor league drug suspension and his latest admission, though, Hamilton was a potent hitter.

The now 33-year-old spent one year in Cincinnati (2007) hitting .292 and slugging 19 home runs in just 90 games. Then he was dealt to Texas where he made five straight All-Star teams, led the Rangers to back-to-back World Series appearances, and won MVP in 2010.

When the time came to cash in on his incredible talent, the Rangers weren’t willing to match the Angels’ offer. Perhaps they read his 2012 second-half slump (he hit just .259 after the All-Star break) as an ominous sign.

Hamilton’s deal highlights the high-risk, high-reward game that is baseball’s free agency. Sometimes players never feel comfortable in their new environment, sporting expensive contracts, with the expectations that their presence can lift a whole team. It’s a situation some find so unnerving that they forget what got them there in the first place.

On the other side, free agency can also be a boon.

Take the Braves when they signed Greg Maddux in 1993 to head an already loaded pitching staff. Or when the Cubs signed Andre Dawson to man right field in 1987.

Maddux, then the reigning Cy Young winner, won three more Cy Youngs with Atlanta, while Dawson won MVP with Chicago.

Others, like A-Rod, watch injuries and suspensions ruin their worth until no one thinks they’ll succeed and then prove everyone wrong with one impressive month.

Maybe Hamilton will too.