There was an interesting little discrepancy in the reporting of two different writers on a particular player recently -- so little, in fact, that I'll be floored if anyone caught it. Just over a month ago today, SI.com's Jon Heyman wrote that .362/.411/.633-hitting Josh Hamilton -- whose 4-for-5, one-walk performance in last night's walk-off thriller secured his place atop baseball's wins above replacement leaderboard -- "look[ed] wise" in rejecting a three-year, $24 million offer that he purported the Rangers made "several months ago." Eleven days later, Anthony Andro of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram countered in writing that the Rangers hadn't negotiated with Hamilton since 2009; a pretty stark contrast in reports, all things considered.
Who's right on this issue? I don't know. I'm not down there in the room. I'm not ringing up baseball executives at 1 a.m. asking whether Jon Daniels still has a reputation of being difficult to work with. (Congrats to those of you who caught the reference.) All we really do know is that Hamilton (a) is, by several measures (including his 170 OPS+, which is the highest of any player in the post-Senators history of the franchise), enjoying a beyond-elite-level season in which offense is down near 20-year lows league-wide, (b) is currently something like a 70-30 favorite to win the Most Valuable Player award, and (c) is in line for a significant arbitration-aided raise going into his penultimate season before becoming free agent-eligible.
One of the most frequently applied frameworks for estimating what an arbitration-eligible player should receive is the 40-60-80 rule -- that is, a player entering his first year of arbitration eligibility should, in theory, bank 40 percent of what he would command on the open market (as determined by WAR x $4.0-4.5 million, or thereabouts), 60 percent in his second year, and so forth. However, employing this model here would easily put Hamilton's 2011 salary north of the $15 million mark, and would require him submitting an arbitration figure closer to $20 million, which has never happened before and obviously isn't going to happen now; that shouldn't even surprise us, because the 40-60-80 model breaks down at the extremes. Tom Tango has even said as much.
And here's where we have to tap into our basic intuition and knowledge about the arbitration process to advance any further, because here's the rub: Josh Hamilton is setting up to be one of the most unique arbitration cases in a very long time. Above all else, baseball's salary arbitrators lean upon comparisons to determine the outcomes of disputes -- comparisons of the player in question to his same-position peers at similar points in their careers, comparisons of salaries, comparisons of career games lost to the disabled list, etc. But Hamilton is such an extreme outlier in so many different respects that it borders on impossible to render an semi-accurate prediction, because his highs and lows have proven as extreme as those of anyone in baseball over the last three years.
Coming off an MVP-caliber season, I have to think that Hamilton's camp strongly considers submitting a $10-11 million offer, which would be nigh-unprecedented territory for a four-year player like Hamilton who earned just $3.25 million this season; the only other four-year player I can think of who attempted to extract such a huge pay increase was Felix Hernandez, and his arbitration hearing this past January was averted with a five-year, $78 million deal. Hamilton won't get that, of course, but a settlement just north of $8.5 million seems very reasonable in my head, after which you're talking about $10-plus million in 2012, Hamilton's final year of arbitration eligibility.
And if you want to keep Hamilton beyond 2012 (at which point he'll be entering his age-32 season and decline phase), you're looking at a guy who would require an extremely competitive offer to stay (that is, nearly equivalent to or better than the next-best offer), and somebody who's going to point to the Michael Young contract as the negotiating benchmark. That is where the bar has been set for inordinately large position-player contracts in this organization. And in spite of the stated willingness of Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan to get some sort of long-term deal with Hamilton, I'm not sure if it's even more dangerous to go that route than it would be with Cliff Lee.
For right now, we can sit back and fully appreciate Hamilton for what he is -- a transcendent player whose season might well compare favorably to those of an early-2000s Alex Rodriguez before we hit October. We can appreciate the hell out of this team for pulling off one of its most dramatic comebacks of the last 10 years last night. We can appreciate this march towards the playoffs, because we just don't know if there will ever be another one quite like. But none of that obviates the point that the Rangers, regardless of what unfolds before Halloween, have some very, very interesting decisions coming up this winter with some potentially huge long-term implications.