Josh Hamilton was selected with the first overall pick in the 1999 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He crushed opposing pitchers in the minor leagues, earning a selection to the All-Star Futures Game in 2000. Hamilton appeared to be well on his way to the big leagues before an automobile accident sidelined him for months. Yet, it was not his injuries that derailed his early career as a professional. It was a drug and alcohol addiction. After several failed drug tests, a few attempts at rehabilitation, and year-long suspensions handed down by MLB, Hamilton found himself out of baseball by the end of the 2005 season.
After success rehabilitation, Hamilton played 15 games for the Hudson Valley Renegades at the end of the 2006 season. In the 2006 Rule 5 Draft, the Chicago Cubs selected Hamilton third overall, and immediately traded him to the Cincinnati Reds. He played well in his first year as an outfielder in the Bigs, slashing .292/.368/.554 with 19 home runs and 47 runs batted in 90 games.
In December of 2007, the Reds traded Hamilton to the Texas Rangers, where Hamilton’s career would take off. He was selected to the AL All-Star team in each of the five seasons he spent with Texas, earning AL MVP honors in 2010, and finishing fifth in the voting in 2012. In 2008 he led the league with 130 RBI. In 2010 he led the league in Wins Above Replacement (8.4), batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage. In his final season with Texas he smashed 43 home runs and knocked in 128 runs, setting the stage for a massive free agent contract.
He signed a five-year, $125M deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Several media outlets criticized Hamilton’s decision to move to Southern California, where the nightlife distractions could easily cloud his judgement and impair his sobriety.
2013 was a rough year for the left-handed slugger. Hamilton was healthy, appearing in 151 games (second-most of his career), but hit just .250 with 21 home runs and 79 RBI. He struggled with injuries in 2014 and appeared in just 89 games. While rehabbing an injury to his AC joint, Hamilton voluntarily revealed to MLB that he relapsed into his drug addiction. An arbitrator ruled Hamilton did not violate the terms of the drug policy, but Angels owner Arte Moreno made it very clear by removing Hamilton merchandise from team stores that he no longer wanted Hamilton on the roster.
The Angels traded Hamilton back to the Texas Rangers in April of 2015. Wanting him off the roster, the Angels agreed to pay most of the $80M remaining on his contract signed prior to the 2013 season. In his second stint with Texas he appeared in 50 games, hitting just .253 with eight home runs and 25 runs batted in. He registered career lows in on-base percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage.
After undergoing three knee surgeries in nine months, the Rangers announced in May of 2016 that Hamilton would miss the entire 2016 season. On August 23rd, 2016 the Rangers released Hamilton after activating him from the 60-day disabled list. The transaction came as no surprise because if Hamilton remained on the Rangers’ roster beyond September 1st, he would not be eligible to play an MLB game until May 15, 2017. Thus, the Rangers left the door open for a return to the team in 2017 if Hamilton can stay healthy once MLB Spring Training begins in March.
When healthy, Hamilton can perform like a baseball immortal. He launched four two-run home runs in May of 2012 against the Baltimore Orioles, simultaneously setting the AL record for total bases in a game with 18. He earned AL MVP votes in four out of five All-Star seasons in his first stint with Texas.
Should Hamilton return from baseball’s graveyard, he will need to stay healthy and abstain from drug and alcohol abuse. There’s no question Hamilton’s best years came in Texas, where he was accompanied by a mentor and team liaison at all times to discourage and prevent drug abuse. It’s unlikely any team other than the Rangers will take a chance on Hamilton in 2017. His relapse, continuous battle with injuries, and declining performance make him a low-quality free agent. Hamilton probably won’t be able to play the field as much as he once could, so the DH position is Hamilton’s to lose if he can prove himself early on.
As someone who was fortunate enough to attend the 2008 Home Run Derby, I was mesmerized by Hamilton’s ability to send baseballs into orbit. The ball sounds different when it comes off his bat, almost like baseball was meant for Hamilton and his explosive swing. I hope he can rejuvenate his career once again in 2017, because, I truly believe, his baseball ability is far above 95% of anyone else in MLB.
Stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com