It’s time to prepare for life without Hamilton

In the aftermath of “The Drop” in Oakland and subsequent 0-for-4 performance in the AL Wild Card Game, it was hard to find anyone who wanted to re-sign Josh Hamilton. Never mind that he played an enormous role in back-to-back trips to the World Series and won an AL MVP Award for the Rangers.

The mercurial Hamilton became the face of the Rangers’ pitiful September collapse because of a strange ailment that caused him to miss five key games and then his nonchalant reaction to dropping that ball in center field on the final day of the regular season.

Maybe there will be a time when Rangers fans learn to appreciate Hamilton again, but it’s still too soon at this point.

So for the second time in three years, a player from the Rangers is the highest-profile free agent in baseball. Compared to what’s about to happen with Hamilton, the Cliff Lee negotiation was run-of-the-mill.

With Lee, at least we had a general idea of what it would take to sign him to a long-term contract. With Hamilton, even longtime baseball executives don’t seem to have a clue.

If you were able to judge him on numbers alone, Hamilton’s asking price might be comparable to Prince Fielder or even Albert Pujols. But with the 31-year-old Hamilton, you have to factor in years of drug abuse and a couple well-publicized alcohol relapses.

There’s also the fact that Hamilton’s only played 145 games or more twice in his five seasons with the Rangers. And despite his 43 home runs and 128 RBI in 2012, it still felt like a disappointment based on an awful two-month slump over the summer.

He had 21 home runs at the end of May, but after June 1, Hamilton hit a pedestrian .245/.322/.487. Rangers president Nolan Ryan – who sparked controversy by suggesting Hamilton’s timing on quitting tobacco hurt the team – repeatedly has said the Rangers will look at the slugger’s entire body of work. But if the Rangers truly wanted to keep Hamilton, they would’ve been more aggressive in making an offer leading up to free agency.

Maybe a team will roll the dice on a long-term deal with Hamilton, but I promise you it won’t be the Rangers. It’s hard to see them offering Hamilton more than a three-year contact for somewhere in the neighborhood of $65 million. And you can bet Hamilton’s seeking a much longer contract.

Will he get it? I think he will because some organization will become infatuated by his numbers. The usual suspects for a bold move such as this – the Red Sox, Yankees and lately the Marlins – don’t appear to be in the running for a big-ticket item such as Hamilton.

The team that keeps getting mentioned is the Milwaukee Brewers. It’s a small-market team with a rabid fan base that would be excited about landing a superstar outfielder. And having Ryan Braun and Hamilton in the heart of the order would be imposing.

Another team to keep in mind is Baltimore. The Orioles watched Hamilton swat four home runs in Camden Yards in one game last May, and he has a history of producing big numbers in that park (.370 with 26 RBI in 20 games). The Orioles already have become a haven for ex-Rangers (see Tommy Hunter, Darren O’Day, Chris Davis, Pedro Strop…), so it makes sense that Hamilton might be next.

Davis will move to first base full-time since the Orioles didn’t pick up the option on Mark Reynolds’ contract, and left field will be open for Hamilton. I’m also hearing that Orioles scouts have had their travel schedules reduced dramatically since August. Are they cutting back on expenses in order to save up for a big offer to Hamilton?

This is going to be a fascinating offseason for Hamilton and the Rangers. I still think it’s a long shot he ends up staying in Arlington. And that’s why the smart money has the Rangers being aggressive in rebuilding the starting rotation. Outside of Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison, who do you trust at this point?

In that context, Hamilton almost feels like a luxury item. And no matter how great he’s been for the organization, it does feel like this relationship’s about to end.

Some would say it ended on that sunny afternoon in Oakland.