Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 5/9/12
It's hard to believe that about two months ago a fair amount of Rangers fans had made peace with Josh Hamilton likely wearing a different uniform next season. In the aftermath of an alcohol-related relapse and his subsequent comments that he didn't owe the Rangers organization anything, it seemed like a reasonable course of action to let him walk in free agency. Then April hit and Josh Hamilton turned in one of the greatest months in franchise history. And in Tuesday's 10-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles, Hamilton became only the 16th player in the history of major-league baseball to belt four home runs in a game. His 18 total bases broke an American League record and he's now homered in five of his last six at bats. Only a month into the season, it now seems unfathomable Hamilton would end up playing for another team. It's still important to factor in his considerable baggage, including his history of injuries. But with each blast and amazing play in center field, it becomes harder to remember those things. Hamilton has been recognized as the most prodigious talent in baseball for a few years now, but he has this way of raising the ante. If there's a player in baseball who means more to his team, I'm hard-pressed to think of his name. The Rangers are certainly in better shape to compensate for the loss of Hamilton than the Dodgers would be with Matt Kemp. But that always sounds better in theory than in practice. When Hamilton missed all three games in Toronto because of stiffness in his back, this was a completely different lineup. His presence alone in the lineup causes pitchers to alter their approach. Hamilton is the most dangerous hitter in the game because he rarely misses when he's in a groove. And even when he's struggling, there's still a huge fear factor. If he can stay healthy ( a big "if"), Hamilton has a chance to have the greatest season in Rangers history. He's not going to flirt with .400 like Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn because he's not that selective at the plate, but he could definitely be in the running for the Triple Crown. He's the most gifted player in the history of the Rangers, and that's why it would be an enormous letdown to lose him in the prime of his career. The best comparison in the past 20 years would be the Pittsburgh Pirates losing Barry Bonds in free agency. That organization never recovered, in part because they've had lousy ownership and management. That's obviously not the case with the Rangers' front office. You might be able to point to Albert Pujols leaving the Cardinals for the Angels, but the downside of his career appears to have arrived earlier than anyone expected. Hamilton could be an elite center fielder for another three or four years and he's expressed interest in learning how to play first base after that. We've heard various reports that Hamilton's agent has been in contact with the Rangers, but there's been no indication the two sides are close. The Rangers don't normally like to work on contracts during the season, but they made an exception with Ian Kinsler earlier this season. It's obvious that Hamilton's asking price goes up with each remarkable performance, but it's hard to say whether his hot start has changed the Rangers' negotiating stance. "I don't think much has ultimately changed," a Rangers source told FOXSportsSouthwest.com on Wednesday. "It seems as if both sides have genuine interest in making it work." But if the Rangers truly have that type of interest, they better get something done sooner than later. If they let the season play out and Hamilton hits free agency, the money will get ridiculous. It would not be a shock for a team to offer Hamilton something in the seven-year, 185 million range. It was suggested a couple months ago the Rangers would need opt-out clauses in place to address Hamilton's off-field issues. But his hot start has blown up that approach. There will be plenty of teams willing to offer him a long-term contract with no opt-out clauses if Hamilton hits the open market. And that's why the clock is ticking on the Rangers. And that four home run game didn't exactly help their leverage.
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