Josh Hamilton should be the big offensive target of this off-season, and much like Pujols or Fielder in the previous off-season who is currently on the roster should matter little. The Nationals do not have a player close to the offensive caliber of Josh Hamilton. Hamilton is a difference maker in the middle of the order. Furthermore he is what Bryce Harper could develop into, and who better for Harper to learn his offensive approach from than the player he is most often compared to.
The fact remains though that even if LaRoche and Morse are both on the roster at the time Hamilton is signed he is taking one of their spots, and the odd man out is more than likely to be Michael Morse. Hamilton played the majority of his innings in centerfield this past season and his -26.3 UZR/150 speaks to the fact that it is time for him to move permanently to a corner position, and on the Washington Nationals that would be left field.
We have to examine the possibilities the Hamilton would be replacing LaRoche in the line-up and Morse in the outfield and a straight up switch with Morse. The latter is the easier to achieve so first defense will be examined. Morse is a very bad defender. This past season Morse had a -23.3 UZR/150 in left and a career -20.4. As a left fielder Hamilton is an 8.5 UZR/150 for his career and was -0.1 in 2012. Even at the low point that is a 20 run or two win improvement over Michael Morse from defense alone.
On offense for his career Hamilton has hit .304/.363/.549 and Morse .295/.347/.492. It is closer than many might suspect when it comes to average and getting on base, but there is no comparison when it comes to power. Josh Hamilton is a dangerous hitter, and while Morse is a good hitter with the ability to knock the ball out of the park, Hamilton is on a different level. As a pure offensive player there are few that compare to Hamilton. If nothing else was involved in the decision of having Hamilton or Morse the choice would be clear. With Hamilton in left instead of Morse it is a two win improvement from defense alone and around a three win improvement from offense.
When compared to LaRoche things are a bit different. The Nationals would be gaining the defense and offense in left, but would lose defense at first. Morse at first is essentially a 0 UZR player. He provides average defense while providing good offense. Morse is more of a traditional first baseman than he is anything else. LaRoche on the other hand is a very good defensive first baseman and has averaged 8 UZR/150 the past three seasons. Losing LaRoche at first negates one of the wins that Hamilton’s defense adds in left. As far as offense goes the difference between LaRoche and Morse is not as steep as the difference between Hamilton and anyone on the Nationals.
For his career LaRoche has hit .268/.338/.482. He has a better walk rate than Morse but it ends up equalling out to around the same OBP and the power is roughly equal. By having Morse become the first baseman and Hamilton the left fielder the Nationals are gaining a win on defense and adding the same amount of offensive production they would if they were replacing Morse with Hamilton straight up.
There are of course other considerations. Michael Morse and Hamilton both have one thing in common. Hamilton has two seasons of over 140 games played and Morse one. Neither of them can stay healthy whereas LaRoche has failed to play 140 games twice since becoming a regular player in 2005. LaRoche offers a level of security that neither Hamilton or Morse can. LaRoche might not have the bat of Hamilton, but he will take his position more times than not during the course of a season, and as Nats fans saw the importance of health this season.
Most of Hamilton’s other issues are perceived issues. He did have one relapse where he had a drink at a bar and was seen by a teammate. Hamilton also struggled at the plate while quitting chewing tobacco and drank too many energy drinks once. Most of these issues seem rather minor when you’re talking about adding a 40 homer bat to the middle of a line-up that is long and dangerous, but has no true difference makers. A lot of the issues are reminiscent of issues Redskins players would suddenly have when Snyder was ready to run them out of town. It is almost sad the way the Texas fans have turned on a player that led them to two straight AL titles.
As far as what it would take to sign Hamilton it should take something close to the Pujols or Fielder deal. Hamilton is that type of player. That deal isn’t waiting for him though. The sad reality is that Hamilton’s past may not be a concern now, but it did shorten his life and may have shortened his playing career. Hamilton has also struggled with injuries and a team may not be as willing to pay big money for 120 games as it is 160. Both Pujols and Fielder are extremely durable players. Hamilton is not. If I am to venture a guess at what a Hamilton contract would look like it would be somewhere around the Ryan Howard deal. Perhaps even slightly higher. Something around five years at $130 million. A large AAV but not for as long term as most players of Hamilton’s caliber get.
The Nats have the money, but they won’t be signing both Hamilton and Greinke. Greinke is a more durable player and could be a better fit with the Nationals even though Hamilton is more of what they need. Neither would be a bad move, but as far as outfielders go the Nationals could very well be looking at Josh Hamilton production from Bryce Harper next season and do have both Goodwin and Rendon in the farm system who could fit somewhere in the outfield mix. No one should be upset if the Nationals do sign Hamilton, because they will be adding a heck of a player, but it might not be the best move that is out there.