Handicapping the Josh Hamilton market

Hamilton has suitors, but no one is yet willing to offer more than a three-year deal. ESPN.com Illustration

This is what Josh Hamilton achieved in 2012: 43 homers, tied for the second-most in the majors. One hundred twenty-eight RBIs, which ranked second in the majors. One hundred three runs; only seven players scored more. He finished fifth in the American League MVP voting.

This is what Hamilton somehow simultaneously achieved in 2012: He managed to create more questions about him, about his value, about the risk of signing him.

Somehow, evaluators are asking questions such as this -- Will Hamilton go into operation shutdown if you give him the contract that he's looking for? He seemed to struggle to maintain his focus in a lot of games and weeks last year, so will he simply drift off once he gets an enormous contract?

All of this makes for the most unique set of circumstances for any free agent since the system began in 1976, a mix of raw power and doubt and extraordinary natural ability and rumors. Anybody who tells you he or she knows exactly how this will end up is apparently the only person who thought in early December 2011 that Prince Fielder would land with Detroit.

I asked a handful of baseball officials and invested agents to venture an educated guess on where Hamilton will land -- and all but four of them split their votes, which tells you a lot about how wide-open and uncertain this situation appears to be:

The results:

Texas Rangers: 4 votes (Two full, four half-votes)

How this would happen: As Hamilton floundered down the stretch, some members of the Texas organization became completely fed up with what they perceive to be his unreliability and his wildly inconsistent at-bats; he swung at the first pitch in his at-bats at a higher rate than anybody in the majors. In the Rangers' wild-card game loss to the Orioles, he saw a total of eight pitches in his four plate appearances.

But the Rangers also know all about his potential impact; Texas had never been to the World Series before Hamilton joined the team, and then Hamilton was their best player as they reached the Fall Classic in 2010 and 2011. They know better than anybody about the state of his off-field issues. The Rangers are prepared to pay Hamilton a lot in salary, but it seems likely that they will limit the length of their contract offer.

Remember, though: The Rangers have a lot to offer Hamilton beyond dollars. He knows the front-office staff, knows manager Ron Washington, knows the coaches, knows the players. He knows the media, and wouldn't face nearly the kind of scrutiny that he would if he played in Boston or New York. If he played for the Yankees, any off-field incident would play out on the back pages day after day after day.

The Rangers know Hamilton; he knows them. And there could be a lot of value in that for both sides, in working out a new deal.

One evaluator who gave a half-vote for the Rangers wrote this: "He needs big money -- an average annual value for somewhere between $25 and $30 million depending on the years he is (or is not) guaranteed. Texas still needs a big power bat and despite how things ended it worked well for both sides when he was there."