Should The Astros Pursue Josh Hamilton?

added 5/20/2012 by Bob Hulsey

Since the Astros will soon be moving to the American League West, I'll probably need to ditch some of my favorite American League jokes:

Q: What do you call an AL pitcher with a 5.50 ERA?

A: Closer.

Q: What do you call an AL pitcher with a 4.25 ERA?

A. Ace.

Q: What do you call an AL first baseman who plays most of his games at DH?

A: Gold Glove winner.

The latter actually happened in 1999 when Rafael Palmeiro won the AL Gold Glove at first base after he played 28 games with the Rangers at first and 128 at designated hitter, which tells you all you need to know about why Jeff Bagwell is not in the Hall of Fame. A bunch of mouth-breathing morons like Richard Justice vote on this stuff.

Speaking of the Rangers, their fans did a splendid job this weekend filling Minute Maid Park during their interleague series with the Astros. Houston came into the weekend ranked last in National League attendance, yet still better than five American League teams. Houston was ahead of seven AL teams when the homestand began.

Apparently, Jim Crane's business model is to fill Minute Maid with as many Rangers, Yankees and Red Sox fans as possible until Astros fans can get interested again. If that's the approach, I think he needs to petition Bud Selig to keep the Indians, Royals, Rays, White Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Mariners and Athletics off future schedules. None of them can draw flies and a few can't catch them either.

Instead, Crane should replace those teams on the schedule with better-drawing attractions like the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Green Bay Packers, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Longhorn and Aggie football teams, U2, the Swedish Bikini Team, Lakewood Church, Mexico's national futbol team, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party (with or without Sarah Palin). The Astros might actually beat some of them.

Since Selig and Nolan Ryan declared war on the Astros by dooming them to AL Hell, I think Crane's mission should be to make the Rangers as miserable as sitting in their ballpark on an August afternoon. It will be a long time before the Astros will be able to dominate them on the field but, untill they can, the best Crane can do is screw with them big time and the first way he can do that is to make a serious run at Josh Hamilton this winter.

Don't laugh. If the Astros don't have to pay Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez or Brett Myers next season, they can throw a front-loaded contract at Hamilton and not alter their payroll all that much. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Astros' payroll this year is $60 million, almost exactly half what the Rangers are paying their players. The Rangers are committed to $84 million already for next year without Hamilton, who is expected to want a contract similar to the gargantuan amount signed by Albert Pujols with the Angels.

Hamilton turns 31 this month so he'll be almost 32 when the new contract kicks in. The injury-prone, relapse-prone, born-again substance abuser is arguably the best player in the American League (I think that title belongs to Justin Verlander, but what do I know?) yet giving him a 10-year deal is like paying Lindsay Lohan a seven-film movie contract. It must make GMs nervous.

Not so with the Astros. Houston is shown to have $17 million committed to next year - $13 million to Wandy and a $3 million buyout for Myers. If both get traded, the only guy the Astros are committed to paying next year is Chris Snyder, assuming someone will pick up his mutual option. The only two players on the roster making over a million this year who are expected to return next year are J.A. Happ and Jed Lowrie. Four other Astros will be in their first year of arbitration and the only one who could get big bucks might be Bud Norris.

In short, if the Astros wanted to totally wreck the Rangers' salary structure for next year (not to mention other teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers), they can throw mad money at Hamilton for fewer years and force anyone to match it. If the Astros sign him, they can use him as the poster boy for their new AL marketing push.

Most teams backload these contracts on the premise that 2021 dollars won't be worth as much as 2012 dollars. Today's U.S. dollar might be worth only 60-70% what it is worth today as long as we have the same lunatics running our monetary policies in Washington as we do now. When a team signs Pujuls or Troy Tulowitzki to uberdeals, they do it with the belief that the large payouts at the end will actually look like a bargain ten years later - and they may be right.

Crane is in a position to show Hamilton the money now. How about $40 million the first year? $35 million in 2014? $32.5 mil in 2015? As the young Astros become ready for arbitration, Hamilton's salary can shrink so the overall payroll grows slowly and Hamilton's contract isn't a burden.

Hamilton's agent can still brag that he got his client a boatload of cash, the Astros can bring a homer-hitting box office attraction to town who will still be affordable later when his production falls off because his salary will be less and his supporting cast should be better each year. And just think if Lance Berkman could teach the lefty hitter how to flick balls into the Crawford Boxes as his bat speed declines, he could still be productive for the contract's later years.

It's a win-win for the Astros because they would have their marquee player for years to come while doing serious injury to the Rangers at the same time. Even if the Astros don't get Hamilton, driving up his price will either force Ryan to not spend on other stars, explode his payroll budget or watch his primary gate attraction walk.

Hamilton's agent and the Rangers are discussing an extension so this might all be for naught (although Ryan said this weekend he expected Hamilton to test the free agent waters) but few people thought Pujols would ever leave St. Louis last year and look what happened (and look who's smiling now).

By signing Hamilton, Crane would also buy a lot of good will with local fans who are still sitting on their wallets rather than attending games. Hamilton's quirky half-Christian, half-stoner personality might also wear well with the local citizens who are otherwise going to wait until football season and root root root for the Texans.

Having almost zero resources committed to the future allows Crane an extraordinary opportunity to go "all in" on the best player of his new rivals to the North. Wouldn't it be a lovely way to say "thank you" to Ryan for (ahem) welcoming us to his neighborhood?