Rangers need Hamilton
For a moment, set aside questions of money and focus on what Josh Hamilton has done and will do for the Rangers if he sticks around: slug. With 142 career homers and a .549 slugging percentage as a Ranger, he's the one free agent available in this winter's market with the kind of power stroke that, all by himself, truly makes a difference in a big league lineup.
Certainly, that performance reflects his ability to bash in a ballpark that helps pump up power, with 83 bombs and a .592 SLG at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Equally important, though, is that Hamilton is one of the rare Rangers whose game-breaking power is not just a product of his home field -- he has slugged .541 on the road over the past two seasons.
The other reason Hamilton's power is such a critical element for their ongoing success is that deciding whether to keep him is not about the Rangers' choices when it comes to finding a replacement for him in center field. If, instead of keeping Hamilton, the Rangers find themselves picking between giving Leonys Martin a chance or spending money on B.J. Upton or Michael Bourn, that's the exactly wrong choice for them to be making. It would mean they've failed to identify what it is that Hamilton does best and what they will desperately need for them to keep contending after he slips away -- and that's slug.
How big a problem would this be? Huge, because of whom the Rangers already have at first base and DH, and whom they'd still be playing regularly in left field after Hamilton leaves. First base, left field and DH are traditional power slots, but the bad news about Mitch Moreland, David Murphy and Michael Young, respectively, is that they're all average to below-average sluggers at their positions, even without adjusting for boosted numbers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
In 2012, the Isolated Slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) for American League designated hitters was .174; the Rangers' clocked in at .167. Murphy's 2012 ISO of .175 was right in line with a career .178, very average compared with the AL's .172 for left fielders in 2012. And at first base, the AL average ISO was .220, but Texas got a paltry .148 ISO.
In short, that's why Hamilton should be a keeper: power. Lose Hamilton from the lineup, and the Rangers aren't just making a change in center, they'll be forced to come to terms with the fact that they're short of top-shelf slugging in their traditional power slots. If the Rangers lose Hamilton this winter, that's not all they'll wind up losing in the seasons to come.
He's overrated, let him go
No, it's not easy to replace 43 home runs and 128 RBIs, but the Texas Rangers should be willing to let Josh Hamilton walk away. The main reason isn't the risk associated with Hamilton's past history of drug use; no, the main reason is that Hamilton is overrated as a player.
Hamilton was an admittedly awesome performer when he won the AL MVP Award in 2010, but does the batting line below resemble a player -- one who turns 32 in May -- you want to pay $20 million-plus per season to?
28 HR, 94 RBI, .305 AVG, .360 OBP, .555 SLG, 3.9 WAR
That's Hamilton's season average over the past four years. That's a nice player, no doubt; four-win players don't grow on trees. It also hints, however, at the injury issues and inconsistency of Hamilton's performance. Sure, he hit .359 in 2010, but in the other three seasons he's hit .268, .298 and .285. Sure, he posted a .411 OBP in 2010, but in the other three seasons he had OBPs of .315, .346 and .354.
Over the past four seasons, Hamilton ranks 24th among position players in WAR, per Baseball Reference. That's more star than superstar. OK, that includes 2009, when he played only 89 games; but it also includes 2010, which looks like an outlier season.
That figure seems incongruous with the idea that Hamilton is one of baseball's elite performers, but if you dig past just the home runs and RBIs you see a player who ranks only 56th in OBP in 2011-2012 (minimum 800 plate appearances). Emilio Bonifacio (!) and Jamey Carroll (!!) have a higher OBP over the past two seasons. Hamilton does rank eighth in slugging percentage; nobody is questioning his power, but that power comes from a guy does make outs and whose strikeout rate skyrocketed in 2012 (162 K's).
The Rangers also have to figure out how to best allocate their resources. Their payroll is already around $110 million for 2013, a figure that doesn't include Hamilton or Mike Napoli, not to mention the possibility of signing Zack Greinke. Even if the payroll jumps to $130 million range, there isn't room for Hamilton and Greinke. Factor in that the Rangers have other solid options for the outfield -- a Craig Gentry/Leonys Martin platoon in center, and David Murphy or Ian Kinsler in left (with prospect Jurickson Profar taking over at second) -- and the wise decision is to let Hamilton go and spend on the rotation, a catcher or an upgrade at first base.