If you think outfielder Josh Hamilton will sign a contract that sufficiently protects the Texas Rangers from any injuries and relapses that he might suffer, think again.
Hamilton need not make concessions when he likely would receive a massive, fully guaranteed free-agent contract if he stays reasonably healthy and productive.
Besides, the collective bargaining agreement addresses the treatment and discipline of players who experience drug and alcohol problems. The CBA likely would leave the Rangers little room to negotiate specific conditions for Hamilton, a recovering addict.
The future of Hamilton, who turns 31 on May 21, is one of baseball’s most compelling topics as the Rangers host their first showdown with the Los Angeles Angels this weekend.
Hamilton is off to a fantastic start, leading the American League in all three Triple Crown categories as well as on-base percentage and slugging percentage. On Tuesday, he became the 16th player in major-league history to hit four home runs in one game.
The Rangers want to sign him and continue to explore creative possibilities with his contract, sources say. Hamilton has said that he wants to stay in Texas, but also has made it clear that he is leaving his options open.
The best solution for the Rangers, considering Hamilton’s age, past and injury history, is probably a short deal with a high average salary — say, four years, $100 million. Yet even then, Hamilton would be a high-risk, high-reward proposition.
The common perception is that Hamilton’s addictions make him a greater long-term gamble than most free agents. Hamilton, though, has suffered only two known relapses since his major-league debut in 2007. Both relapses occurred during the offseason, and did not cause him to miss playing time.
The bigger issue for the Rangers is that Hamilton frequently is injured. It is not known if his past drug and alcohol abuse exacted a physical toll that contributes to his physical breakdowns. But from 2009 to ’11, Hamilton missed 143 games, or the equivalent of nearly one full season.
So, what can the Rangers do?
If Hamilton would agree, the team could attempt to include drug and alcohol provisions in his next contract. But Hamilton would have little incentive to agree to such provisions when he likely could negotiate a deal on the open market without them. Besides, the players’ union views such clauses as unenforceable, sources say.
The union’s position is that the CBA includes a centralized treatment program that was negotiated by the players and owners, and is not subject to individual bargaining.
Think of it like this, using baseball’s steroid policy as an example:
A player receives a 50-game suspension for a first-time violation. The penalty is 100 games for a second violation, a lifetime ban for a third. A team cannot sign a player under the condition that he would be banned for a second offense; that is not how the policy reads.
The Rangers, even if Hamilton suffered a relapse in the middle of a season, could proceed only so far. Contractual disputes occasionally arise from a player’s drug or alcohol abuse, but clubs rarely win even when citing the good-conduct clause in the Uniform Player Contract.
The Baltimore Orioles tried to void right-hander Sidney Ponson’s deal in 2005, in part because of Ponson’s problems with alcohol. Ponson, in a settlement four years later, received nearly all of the $11.2 million he was due.
The last such case to even go to arbitration involved pitcher Lamarr Hoyt, who was sentenced to 45 days in jail for drug possession on Dec. 16, 1986. Then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth banned Hoyt, but an independent arbitrator cut Hoyt’s suspension to 60 days and ordered the Padres to reinstate him. The Padres released Hoyt, but had to pay him the approximately $3 million remaining on his contract.
The Rangers surely understand the risk; they took it once before, signing Hamilton to a two-year, $24 million deal in February 2011. The most realistic way for the club to secure protection in a longer Hamilton contract would be through the structure of the term; baseball recently banned milestone bonuses and personal-service agreements.
But again, why would Hamilton accept option years, voidable years or conversion language — anything that compromises his value — while he is on such a roll?
The Rangers surely would love to incorporate conversion language, which would enable them to convert guaranteed years to non-guaranteed if Hamilton failed to meet certain conditions.
Lots of luck. The non-guaranteed years would amount to a series of one-year options, NFL-style. No player with leverage would agree to such a thing.
Voidable years on a back-loaded contract would be a more reasonable target; that way, the Rangers could escape the most expensive years of Hamilton’s deal if a mutually agreed upon physician concluded that he was unable to play due to specified injuries.
Teams occasionally negotiate such safeguards with players who have pre-existing conditions. Of course, those players usually are in no position to object, and accept the tradeoff in exchange for whatever security they receive.
One more time: As long as Hamilton has the hammer, he need not settle for anything less than a full guarantee.
Right now, he has the hammer.
If the Rangers want to keep him, they will need to swing away.