I really like Josh Hamilton. His performance in the 2008 Home Run Derby kind of stole my heart. Since then, my wife and I have both been big fans. So everything that has been going on with Hamilton the past few months is very sad for me. I can handle watching him struggle as a player, but watching him struggle personally — and “struggle” isn’t really the right word; we’re talking about problems that have nearly destroyed him before and could easily do it again — is a pretty heartbreaking thing for a fan to watch.
I don’t want to talk much here about the current non-baseball issues going on, other than to say that I wholeheartedly disagree with nearly everything my colleague Dan wrote about Hamilton last month. Oh, and I already wrote about what a lying sack of crap Arte Moreno is. That’s all I will say about those issues for now. I want to talk about the elephant in the room: Josh Hamilton is old.
No, he’s not old by the standards of the world, and we’re not used to calling guys old after only eight seasons in the big leagues. But Hamilton didn’t make his Major League debut until he was almost 26, and now he’s just one month away from turning 34.
There have been only 75 seasons in Major League history in which a player hit 35+ home runs at age 34 or later, and the majority of those seasons were by all-time greats and/or steroid users and/or guys who played in Colorado. The odds are stacked against any player to continue to be a productive power hitter into his mid- and late-thirties.
But Josh Hamilton is not just any player. He is a player with a history of injury problems and a history of drug problems. He spent his early twenties destroying his body with drugs and his late twenties battering it with the abuse of being a professional athlete. The players who remain effective into their late-thirties are freaks of nature or consumers of performance-enhancing chemistry, if not both. Hamilton might be a freak of nature — and to be honest, he probably is, considering that he was able to be a great Major Leaguer after hardly playing at all for years — but the chemistry he has partaken of has not been the performance-enhancing kind.
Simply put, there is not much reason to think, even if Hamilton gets healthy and stays (re-)sober, that he will ever be a great baseball player again. He could be useful — there have been 471 seasons of 20+ homers at Hamilton’s age or older — but his last great season, 2012 at age 31, will be his final great season.
This point was driven home to me as I looked at the draft class from 1999, when Tampa Bay took Hamilton with the first overall pick. Here is an alphabetical list of every other Major Leaguer drafted in 1999:
Aaron Harang, Adam LaRoche, Albert Pujols, Alex Rios, Angel Pagan, Barry Zito, Ben Sheets, Bobby Bradley, Brandon Lyon, Brandon Phillips, Brett Myers, Brian Roberts, Carl Crawford, Casey Daigle, Casey Fossum, Chris Capuano, Chris Duncan, Chris Snyder, Coco Crisp, Cody Ross, Colby Lewis, Eric Munson, Erik Bedard, Garrett Jones, Greg Dobbs, Hank Blalock, J.J. Putz, Jake Peavy, Jason Frasor, Jason Jennings, Jason Repko, Jerome Williams, Jimmy Gobble, Joe Saunders, John Lackey, Jon Rauch, Josh Bard, Josh Beckett, Justin Morneau, Kameron Loe, Keith Reed, Kevin Mench, Kurt Ainsworth, Kyle Snyder, Larry Bigbie, Lew Ford, Lyle Overbay, Mark Ellis, Marlon Byrd, Matt Diaz, Matt Ginter, Matt Guerrier, Mike Bynum, Mike Jacobs, Mike MacDougal, Nate Robertson, Noah Lowry, Pat Neshek, Reed Johnson, Rich Harden, Ryan Doumit, Ryan Ludwick, Ryan Raburn, Scott Hairston, Scott Rice, Shane Victorino, Willie Bloomquist, Willie Harris
Most of those players are retired, some a long time ago. Very few are still effective big leaguers, and not a single one is still great. Let’s face it: without the drug abuse and the injury history, Josh Hamilton would be on his way down a steep hill, just like pretty much everyone else on this list. Factor in the beating his body has taken, both inside and out, and he’s probably way too far down the hill to even think about backing up.
As a huge Josh Hamilton fan, I hate to say it, but he is done. It has been reported that he is negotiating a buyout with the Angels, and if that happens, I wouldn’t be surprised if he never puts on a Major League uniform again. Otherwise, he has $83 million in incentives to keep showing up for work, but he will never be great again.