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Should the Rangers bring up Josh Hamilton’s substance abuse history if they go to arbitration?

Jan 24, 2011, 4:09 PM EDT

File photo of Texas Rangers' outfielder Josh Hamilton waiting to hit during workouts in preparation for Major League Baseball's World Series in San Francisco

Unless they settle with either a one-year deal or a big lockup package, Josh Hamilton and the Rangers are slated to head to an arbitration hearing sometime soon.  From that an interesting question emerges: how hard do the Rangers hit him — if they hit him at all — with his substance abuse history?

The immediate answer that comes to mind may be “none at all! How rude that would be!”  I get that, and as I’ll write below, I agree that they ultimately shouldn’t go there.  But arbitration is litigation and the litigation process is such that it’s really, really difficult to pull one’s punches.  And not just because of rudeness concerns, but because of precedent.

An arbitration doesn’t just set the current player’s salary. It’s used as a baseline for later players with similar production and similar service time who head into the process themselves. If one team eases up on Josh Hamilton, other teams heading into arbitration with their Hamiltonian super stars will have a tougher hill to climb in order to prevail.  In a way, then, the integrity of the process requires that the parties fight their hardest case possible.

And it’s not hard to see how Hamilton’s history could, theoretically, be used against him.  Not on moral grounds, per se, but because his drug use took away from many important development years. Hamilton has had an injury history.  If the Rangers want to argue that that history gives them pause, could they not — and should they not — point to Hamilton’s abnormal development as a player as a potential reason for concern?  Could they not also point to his brief and highly-publicized relapse in 2009 as an added risk factor with respect to future playing time?  Another relapse and — bam! — he’s in rehab. I’m not saying that they should do that, just that they could.

MLB Trade Rumors spoke with someone today who cautioned the Rangers on that front:

The Rangers could bring up Hamilton’s injury history and past substance abuse, but they would have to do so subtly, says Michael Vlessides, a veteran arbitration consultant.  “It’s the fine line between how much do you pick on the guy who’s the MVP. If you do it too much, you can lose a lot of credibility” Vlessides said. Beating MVPs in arbitration hearings isn’t easy, but the Pirates beat Barry Bonds after he won his first MVP in 1990 and again the following offseason.

I’ll go one better and say that trashing an MVP is not just a bad thing to do for credibility purposes, but that it’s a bad thing to do with Josh Hamilton and his drug history specifically for strategic purposes.

Why would Hamilton’s history be a detriment to his value?  Sure, it may be for many other players, but Hamilton is a unique case. That relapse notwithstanding, he’s turned his story into something of a fairytale. It’s triumph-over-adversity stuff, and if anything it has made him a much more popular player than he otherwise would be.  There’s value in that. Actual financial value to the Rangers that could make bringing the subject up worse for them than if they leave it alone.

Personally, I’d have a hard time seeing the Rangers go there. They’re not a dumb organization. Since Nolan Ryan took over, they seem to go out of their way to avoid ruffling their own players’ feathers, and I see no reason why they’d start with Hamilton.

But I also suspect that they know what Hamilton is all about, both as a player and as a phenomenon.  It’s not easy for baseball to bring totally new fans into the fold. People who wouldn’t otherwise pay attention.  If anyone has brought those kinds of fans into the game in the past couple of years, it’s Josh Hamilton, and I presume the Rangers are well aware of this.

  1. uyf1950 - Jan 24, 2011 at 4:15 PM

    If they do it would be a huge mistake, if they hope to sign him to a long term deal sometime in the future. Also remember they just gave their manager an extension and his past isn’t exactly squeaky clean.

    • spudchukar - Jan 24, 2011 at 4:18 PM

      Tip of the Hat, to UYF, and the Ron Washington example. If I am in the arbitration room, and they go THERE, I counter with, then why did you trade for me? Seems all leverage is lost with that response.

      • yankeesfanlen - Jan 24, 2011 at 4:36 PM

        As you point out early in the article, it’s just rude. Further the implications that it would lead to a precedent are legally true but also a business decision that is not worth the (nominal) savings in this or future cases.
        Craig, ufy, and spud are correct. Let it pass and presumably the results will speak for themselves.

      • Jonny 5 - Jan 24, 2011 at 4:43 PM

        So you’ll pay him the same? As if there was no history of severe drug use, and no history of him relapsing either? I don’t know guys, that’s kind of “not smart”.

      • yankeesfanlen - Jan 24, 2011 at 4:51 PM

        Jonny, apparently you never went to evil empire school of negotiation. Throwing money at a crowd-pleaser works.

  2. Jonny 5 - Jan 24, 2011 at 4:37 PM

    I wouldn’t bring it up initially. I would make my offer incentives based for a larger portion than a squeaky clean player would normally get. There wouldn’t be a blockbuster guaranteed deal in other words. If the Hamilton camp says “Well, so and so got this much guaranteed, and he’s pretty much equal.” then they push a larger better guaranteed deal back at you, then you have to bring it up. What will you do? Lie to the man? The fact is, Hamilton’s history MUST be taken into consideration, and will. He knows it, his manager knows it, and the Rangers know it. Anyone with a half brain knows Hamilton is a gamble, not as much as he was, but a gamble nonetheless. I’m pretty sure, since Hamilton isn’t a moron, that he expects this, and won’t be miffed by it when it happens either.

    • uyf1950 - Jan 24, 2011 at 4:45 PM

      Unless I’m mistaken and I don’t think I am the arbitrator has only one of two options either award what the player asked for or give the player what the team countered with. There is no negotiation with the player at that point in the arbitrators meeting.

      • okobojicat - Jan 24, 2011 at 5:21 PM

        There is negotiation outside the room during the process. After each side posts their #, then they talk outside the room.

        Just another set of time for them both to avoid listening to the arbitrator and having concede they were wrong.

      • Jonny 5 - Jan 24, 2011 at 5:51 PM

        I fully expect we’ll see an article telling us how they avoided arbitration. And I fully expect some sort of incentive built into the contract. It will be good, not bad. The incentive will help Josh say no when he needs to. And because he’s come to terms with his issues, and seems to be a good guy, I think he won’t think twice about agreeing to it either without getting angry.

  3. okobojicat - Jan 24, 2011 at 4:40 PM

    ” I counter with, then why did you trade for me? Seems all leverage is lost with that response”

    I think that’s a crap response. My response as the Rangers would be “because we felt you were valuable at that value and worth the risk. At this value (say, $40mil/4yrs) you are too risky.”

    Also, they could claim they were getting rid of a problem player. Volquez had spent some time at AA and AAA and I’ve heard said was not at all interested in working hard or making his manager happy.

    There are a lot more risks associated with Hamilton than with your average player. The team could argue the risks of injury are greater because of what the drugs/alcohol did to his body. Also, his risk of relapse is greater because we know he has relapsed.

    Hamilton can counter that because he’s played so many less games, he’s not worn out and his risk of injury is less. BTW, I think this arg is crap.

    Its an arbitration. The Rangers, if they feel it isn’t going their way, have to bring it up. But they need to do it very very delicately and discuss the risk and how he’s a greater risk than an average player. That way, they can still express their love of Hamilton’s abilities and what he brings to the team, but be realistic.

    I think that the arbitrator would have no choice but to agree with them on that.

    All that said, my money is on some sort of contract being worked out, similar to – but slightly better – than Billy Butler’s.

    • elibolender - Jan 24, 2011 at 4:56 PM

      Exactly. The question isn’t “do the Rangers want Josh Hamilton on their team.” It’s how much is Hamilton worth. I think it makes perfect sense for the Rangers to be somewhat cautious when offering Hamilton a contract based on his past. Imagine you have two players that have the exact same true talent ability and statistical record over the past couple seasons. One of these guys has a clean past with absolutely no character concerns whatsoever and the other guy temporarily washed out of baseball several years ago and has an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. I think it’s obvious that you would have less reservations paying the first player and would offer him more if given the opportunity. Of course the second player could end up being better, but their respective pasts are definitely part of the equation and would lead me to bet on player one if push came to shove.

      There’s obvious repercussions that would have to be considered in some sort of cost/benefit analysis by the Ranger front office, but Hamilton’s past ABSOLUTELY matters. I would be quite surprised if this case actually goes to arbitration.

      • spudchukar - Jan 24, 2011 at 5:18 PM

        When you trade for me don’t you immediately say, I think you are the “Clean Gene” you have been lately, and I don’t think you will resort to your evil drug-ridden days of yore. If you have doubts your are a fool to make the deal. Once I come to your organization and produce, stay sober, and do all that you ask and more, I say past is past.
        Would it be relevant if I had arm trouble a few years ago, got well, was traded for, performed exquisitely, went to arbitration and you contended I was worth less because of past arm trouble? What’s next a history of Genetic Deficiencies?

      • okobojicat - Jan 24, 2011 at 5:28 PM


        No, I don’t say that all. All ball players are inherently risks. Greg Maddux was a risk when the Braves signed him to his big deal, a very very small risk, but still, a risk. Just because I want you on my team doesn’t mean I don’t think you are a risk. Either a risk of injury, of underperformance, or in the case of Hamilton, a heightened risk of injury and of drug relapse.

        If there were no risks in players, than the Yankees would’ve offered Sabathia and Lee 10 years. But they didn’t, due to the risks.

        We already know that pitchers with injury histories get less money than comparable pitchers without injury history (risks!).

        I can’t just say “Past is past” because its not so. He had a relapse. The fact he had a relapse makes another relapse significantly more likely.

        Yes, your arm trouble history is extremely relevant. Why did Carl Pavano only get a 2-year deal? Significant arm trouble. Last year, when the Twins and Pavano were planning for arb, the Twins were completely touting his history of Arm Trouble in the press as to why they couldn’t give him a crap ton of money. They both settled.

        On any player, previous injury history of that player is a poor predictor of future injury problems. But it is significantly more accurate THAN ANY OTHER (widely known) metric to predict injuries.

  4. jfk69 - Jan 24, 2011 at 5:15 PM

    If they are smart they would include a clause regarding this as it pertains to paying him if he relapses. If Josh is half the man i think he is …no problem.
    I would be looking to sign him long term.

  5. jfk69 - Jan 24, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    Last thought
    I am sure he has done the twelve step program. Step # 8 and 9 come to mind if Josh’s ego has truly been humbled. Josh must realize that Texas stuck by him mote than once and while he is free to make his own choices. He should not be taken aback at a relapse clause.Again i refer to steps 8 and 9.

  6. Old Gator - Jan 24, 2011 at 6:00 PM

    If I’d been through the hell he’s been through only to have them try to use his past against him to save themselves some money, I’d tell them to go cram it, that I’ve already got enough in the bank to spend the rest of my life trout fishing in top of the line gear, and…go trout fishing. Then they’d have the option of losing him altogether in return for nothing or trading him. In any case if they pulled shit like that on me and I were in his position, I would find a great height and piss on them from it, one way or another. In a world already full of misery, we use “business” to justify inflicting more. Screw that. If they do bring it up, I hope Hamilton finds some way to make them choke on it.

    • spudchukar - Jan 24, 2011 at 6:11 PM


    • Jonny 5 - Jan 24, 2011 at 6:55 PM

      I wouldn’t offer him less than he’s worth if I were them, I don’t think they will either. I think he may have to play though to collect what he’s worth. If he’s off on a bender or rehab, the team shouldn’t have to pay for it through the nose imo either. I’d say taking his past into consideration does not equal less. It equals caution. I may have seemed above that I thought he should get less, but that’s not what I meant. A team very well could see it differently than I do too. They may think his past does equal less $$$? Who knows? I guess time will tell.

  7. baseballisboring - Jan 24, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    I think that would be unfair and disrespectful. Anybody could potentially slip into addiction, not just Hamilton, and I’m sure there’s some functioning alcoholics in MLB. It’s really hard to put a dollar figure on that type of thing, and they would have the right to void his contract if he quits on the team, which he undoubtedly would if he went back into full blown addiction.

  8. markfrednubble - Jan 24, 2011 at 10:39 PM

    This to me seems really simple. If they get to a hearing, the Rangers simply have to show Hamilton’s career to date, with games played and production by year. They then have to say that, as with any player who has missed time in his early years, there is a durability risk that is a bit higher for Hamilton than it would be for a player with no history of injuries or missed time. They should ask the arbitrator to consider Hamilton the way he might consider a Cy Young-winning pitcher who has had a few episodes of shoulder soreness and spent time on the DL. And they should clearly state that the team’s long-term goal is for Hamilton to spend his entire career as a healthy and productive member of the Texas team.

    That’s IF they get to a hearing. The Red Sox under Theo Epstein have never had an arbitration hearing. They have always settled before the hearing, believing the acrimony that can come from a compelling argument is too dangerous. I have to believe Nolan Ryan does NOT want to have an arbitration hearing across the table from Josh Hamilton.

  9. hardjudge - Jan 25, 2011 at 2:04 AM

    Arbitrators almost always base their awards on the previous year’s performance. Mr. Hamilton’s performance last year was pretty close to unbeatable. Give him the money.

  10. The Rabbit - Jan 25, 2011 at 10:15 AM

    Whenever I read something like this, I’m reminded of the late Senator, Thomas Eagleton. If memory serves, when asked about his treatment for depression he responded (and I’m paraphrasing), “I have a paper that says I’m sane.” There aren’t too many politicians…or voters for that matter that could say the same.
    My reaction is disgust when businesses and their media shills try to vilify and penalize individuals for their sincere (not the celebrity/”get out of jail free” publicity stunts) attempts to get treatment. Josh Hamilton may be less of a risk than most walking the streets because he acknowledges he has a problem and deals with it.
    BTW: Props to the Reds for its class when dealing with Joey Votto.

  11. BC - Jan 25, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    It’s a risk factor to consider, just as a player that’s 50 pounds overweight is. But the guy has had what, one flub-up since going sober, and was up front about it and owned up to it. I wouldn’t play that card if I were Texas. I guess it depends how acrimonious the situation becomes.

  12. dmvdmv101560 - Jan 25, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    I’m sure that other ballplayers will be watching these proceedings with a close eye on how Texas handles these negotiations. If Texas plays the substance abuse card to an MVP like Hamilton then they may alienate other players that could possibly play for them in the coming years.

  13. The Baseball Idiot - Jan 25, 2011 at 3:27 PM

    Only if he brings up the “God” card first. Then anything is fair.

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