Senior Baseball Columnist

Back in Nashville five years later, Hamilton's future is again up for grabs

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While Texas lost seven of their final nine games, Hamilton fanned 17 times with no home runs. (Getty Images)  
While Texas lost seven of their final nine games, Hamilton fanned 17 times with no home runs. (Getty Images)  

Ah, Nashville. Famous home of Taylor Swift and Josh Hamilton's future.

Hey, wait! That didn't come out right. Heel, paparazzi.

These are two totally separate subjects … though you wonder whether in the end, in relation to the Rangers, Hamilton will wind up humming We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. Like, ever.

Hamilton's future is up for grabs as the baseball world convenes at the Opryland Hotel on Sunday for the winter meetings. And as interested clubs wrestle with the risk/reward factor of years and dollars against Hamilton's wholly unique history of addiction and injuries, Wayne Krivsky will understand exactly what they're thinking.

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Five years ago, when baseball last conducted its winter meetings in Nashville, Krivsky was the general manager of the Reds. And inside the ludicrously expansive Opryland Hotel is where the discussions began that ultimately would lead to Cincinnati trading Hamilton to Texas a couple of weeks later.

Then, as now, Hamilton's future came packaged with several nagging questions. Difference is, five years later, though the dollar signs are far bigger, many of the same questions apply.

How durable is Hamilton after all that he has been through? He's 31, with a body that seemingly has lived twice that long.

Will that durability diminish more rapidly than other players because of what he has been through?

And what are the chances that he one day might still suffer a relapse in his lifelong battle against addiction?

"It's interesting that a lot of the questions asked then are the same ones being asked five years later," says Krivsky, now a special assistant to Twins GM Terry Ryan. "But certainly, now, teams have seen what he can do if he's healthy."

Hamilton and starting pitcher Zack Greinke are clearly the only two impact players on this year's market. And adding to the annual free agent intrigue this winter are the unique set of issues associated with each man.

Greinke very publically has battled social-anxiety disorder for years, leading to a widely held belief that he may have difficulty pitching in a larger market. But his 6-2 record and 3.53 ERA over 13 starts for the Los Angeles Angels last summer stands as strong evidence to the contrary.

Hamilton, who batted .285 with 43 home runs and 128 RBI for the Rangers last summer, is a famously streaky slugger who was out of the game from 2003-05 while battling drug and alcohol addition.

It was the Reds who took a chance on him in his recovery, and he rewarded them in 2007 by hitting .292 with 19 home runs and 47 RBI in 90 games as a rookie.

But the Reds went 72-90 that summer, finished fifth in the NL Central and badly needed to improve their starting pitching.

"I wasn't looking to trade Josh Hamilton," Krivsky says of the last time Nashville hosted the winter meetings in December 2007. "If anyone was interested in him, they had to be willing to part with a young starter with a high ceiling.

"That was the only way I was going to entertain trading Josh."

When Rangers GM Jon Daniels spoke with Krivsky in Nashville that December, it was a totally different world.

The Rangers had finished last in the AL West at 75-87 and were three years away from their first-ever World Series appearance.

The Reds had just completed their seventh consecutive losing season.

Krivsky told Daniels unequivocally that any deal would have to include young right-hander Edinson Volquez.

Even at that, the Reds proceeded cautiously because Hamilton was an extraordinary talent, and it was simply impossible to read his future.

"There was always pause as to what kind of numbers he would put up," Krivsky said. "He hadn't played in three or four years, then he played 90 games for us and still hit .290 with 19 homers. For not having played in that long. …

"But he also was hurt the last six or seven weeks of the season with a hamstring injury. And he had stomach issues, wrist issues.

"There was some concern, can this guy still play a full season? That's the thing."

Hamilton has proven so much since then, helping lead Texas to consecutive World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011. He was named as the American League MVP in 2010.

At the same time, by season's end in 2010, he was battling a rib-cage injury. And in the playoffs in 2011, he was suffering from a sports hernia. In those two World Series' combined, he hit .184 with a .212 on-base percentage.

This season, he missed a handful of games in September with "sinus-related issues" and, down the stretch, Hamilton was awful. While the Rangers lost seven of their final nine games to lose the AL West title to Oakland, Hamilton struck out 17 times with no homers and no walks. And during a pivotal game in Oakland during the final series, he appeared lackadaisical in botching a routine pop fly in center field and then jogging to the ball after missing it.

In a weak free-agent market devoid of true game-changers, the lack of buzz surrounding Hamilton has been remarkable. The Brewers, Orioles, Mariners, Phillies and Red Sox are among the clubs believed to be engaging Hamilton in talks. The Rangers remain in contact. But it has been awfully quiet.

If Hamilton would be willing to accept a short-term deal, Texas would probably have stronger interest.

Daniels is not yet playing his hand. On a pre-winter meetings conference call Thursday, the Rangers GM assessed his club's position with Hamilton as about the same as it was a couple of weeks ago.

"We've maintained contact with Mike Moye [Hamilton's agent]," Daniels says. "I think the interest has been consistent.

"The process we agreed to this spring when we tabled negotiations was that Josh would test the market, and once he got a sense of that, he would circle back to us.

"That's worked out well for us. We're still sorting through where we are."

The end-game in the Hamilton negotiations remains anybody's guess. Two executives this week predicted that Hamilton will wind up back in Texas.

"I think he will, I really do," one National League exec said. "As long as Hamilton is willing to take a shorter contract, and I think he's going to be forced into that."

The Rangers made Hamilton a qualifying offer earlier this month, meaning that they will receive a supplemental first-round draft pick in 2013 if he signs elsewhere.

If Hamilton does leave, the middle of Texas' lineup probably will be far more right-handed heavy than it is now. The door probably would open for top prospect Leonys Martin to get a chance.

Daniels remembers well when Hamilton was the young guy getting that chance. He was reminded by someone the other day that Nashville was the birthplace of his initial run at trading for Hamilton.

Similar questions now, bigger stakes.

"Now, the risk is financial," Daniels says. "And every club has got to make the determination of what you expect to get [in production] vs. dollars and years. It's a different deal.

"We hadn't lived with him yet, so to speak. Now, having spent the last five years with him, we know Josh.

"There are some similarities. The factors are different."

Different world now, than then.

Hamilton is in a much better place. The Rangers are a totally different franchise. And Swift, by the way, has banged out a few hits of her own since 2007, when she was 18 and had just released her debut album a year earlier.

Whether Nashville will lead Hamilton in a different direction than Texas in 2013 is the No. 1 question right now.

Only guarantee is, be it the Rangers or the Phillies or the Red Sox or Brewers, the situation is tailor made for someone to step up and tell him, You Belong With Me.

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