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Friday, November 9, 2012
The case for Josh Hamilton

By Mark Saxon

Lately, it's as if all these general managers are waking up and thinking, "Hey, wait a minute! I might be able to afford the most powerful left-handed hitter in baseball."

In recent days, the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox have all been reported to have expressed some interest in slugger Josh Hamilton. How could the Dodgers, baseball's nouveau riche, not at least kick the tires? Frankly, shouldn't they be setting their sights on a player with that much impact? Then, if it doesn't work out, there is a whole army of Plan B's out there waiting to sign deals.

Let's keep it simple, Los Angeles Dodgers fans: Which changes your perception of the team's chances next season more, a rotation that comes at you with Clayton Kershaw-Anibal Sanchez or a middle of the order that goes Adrian Gonzalez-Matt Kemp-Josh Hamilton?

There are some good starting pitchers out there, but even the best free agent on the market, Zack Greinke, is far from a guaranteed difference maker. There were 25 starting pitchers in the majors last season with WHIPs better than Greinke's 1.20. His lifetime ERA is 3.77, worse than Chad Billingsley's.

Which is a more worthwhile investment, $90 million for Sanchez or $115 million for Hamilton? Of course, there are a whole host of reasons to object and obstacles to such a move, so let's explore some:

The risk

Hamilton's well-publicized addiction issues, some very public lapses and his occasionally flaky behavior last season (blaming a slump on caffeine use, among others) have led a lot of people to wonder about the wisdom of giving him a mega-deal akin to those signed by Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder.

That market uncertainty is the best thing the Dodgers and other teams have going for them.

It's otherwise not that easy to sign a 32-year-old coming off a 43-home run season, five straight All-Star appearances and with an MVP trophy in his living room. A USA Today report indicated that the Texas Rangers aren't prepared to offer Hamilton a deal exceeding three years. ESPN.com's Jim Bowden estimated somebody will give Hamilton five years and $115 million, which seems about right.

It's potentially the best opportunity for a team to make a below-market signing since Vladimir Guerrero hit free agency coming off a bad back (and won the MVP the next season).

Ever since the Dodgers were linked to Hamilton shortly after the ownership change, there have been whispers that playing in Los Angeles would be a bad fit for Hamilton. Too many nightlife temptations. Too many snooping paparazzi. But you know what else Southern California has: a lot of people living really healthy lifestyles. Plenty of stuff to do during the day, a lot of places to get organic food, tons of support groups.

And, yeah, it has churches, too, just like Texas, and more celebrity rehab centers than any place on earth. If Hamilton lapses in L.A., he'd have plenty of places he could go to get anonymous help.

Clearly, this new front office is not risk-averse. Which is riskier, spending nine figures on Hamilton with his personal struggles or owing nine figures to a player, Carl Crawford, coming off elbow reconstruction surgery?

The glut

But wait, don't the Dodgers already have three every-day outfielders for the next four or five years? Why, yes, in fact they have three pretty good every-day outfielders. But teams solve these kinds of problems all the time. Last season, the Detroit Tigers asked the best hitter on earth, Miguel Cabrera, to switch positions to accommodate Fielder.

A position change probably wouldn't solve a glut in the Dodgers' outfield (hard to imagine Kemp playing third), but the trade market could. Already, there have been rumblings that the Dodgers would consider parting with Andre Ethier. They might have to cover some of the $71.5 million they still owe him, but they could certainly get some useful pieces in return -- maybe even the starting pitcher they're seeking.

The need

General manager Ned Colletti has said he views pitching as the team's greatest need. He's probably right, of course. Getting everybody together starting in spring training figures to help with offensive chemistry and to ease some of the pressure on guys like Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez. It's hard to imagine the Dodgers finishing 13th in the league OPS again with the names Don Mattingly is going to write on his lineup card.

But where does it say you can only work on your weakness over the winter? Aren't pitching/defense and hitting/baserunning just mirror images of one another? Improve one and you've taken pressure off the other. If things go well on the health front, the Dodgers could go into next spring with six healthy, proven starters without doing anything in free agency.

Colletti has said it over and over. These owners have given him license to think boldly. There's really only one signing out there that qualifies as truly bold.