Posted: Tuesday August 17, 2010 9:21AM ; Updated: Tuesday August 17, 2010 5:34PM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>INSIDE BASEBALL

Hamilton leaving no doubt he is the best player in baseball

Story Highlights

Josh Hamilton leads the AL in batting average, slugging, hits and total bases

He has helped lead the Texas Rangers to a commanding AL West lead

The Rangers have to decide if and when to give Hamilton a long-term extension

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Josh Hamilton
Hitting is Josh Hamilton's hallmark but his defense -- as evidenced by this catch last Friday -- can be spectacular too.
AP

Just another night in the life of the best player in baseball went something like this, at least as far as last Friday the 13th:

• Smash four hits all over the park: a single to left, a 440-foot bomb to center, a single and double to right.

• Score from third base on a pop fly to deep shortstop/short left.

• Score from second base on a ground ball to second.

• Make a diving catch on the warning track and a leaping catch against the centerfield wall.

• Cause the third-base coach to halt a runner from scoring from second on an otherwise routine run-scoring single to centerfield.

• Crush the postgame spread.

• Throw around hundreds of pounds of iron in a postgame weightlifting session.

• Gulp down a 2,000-plus-calorie protein shake, made with real cream, on the car ride home.

• Sit down for a full home-cooked meal by his wife. (Yes, for those of you scoring at home, that's the equivalent of three full meals just between the last out and bedtime.)

The legend of Josh Hamilton, Texas Ranger, is growing on a nightly basis. There is nobody like him in baseball, and possibly nobody this good, this big, this fast and this unique -- a 6'4", 235-pound sledgehammer of a hitter who can run balls down in center field and fly around the bases and hit for such a high average -- since Mickey Mantle in his prime.

Hamilton leads the league in batting (.362), slugging (.634), hits (161) and total bases (282). The rest of the league is playing for second place in the MVP race. He has no contemporaries, especially when you consider that the Rangers, somewhat against their better judgment, have started him 26 times in center field.

How rare is that kind of skill set? The last three players to have batted .360 and slugged .600 while playing that much center field are none other than Mantle in 1957, Stan Musial in 1948 and Joe DiMaggio in 1939.

Now, are there any more questions about who is the best player in baseball this year?

"He's certainly in the discussion," Texas GM John Daniels said. "You rarely see a guy perform at this level for this length of time."

In 65 games since June 1, just when the Texas heat is supposed to wilt players, Hamilton has hit .423. He also sets himself apart from other great sluggers because he is one of the game's best base runners and can play Gold Glove-caliber defense in the middle of the field. He has made 14 of his past 24 starts in center field.

Baseball doesn't have official player rankings as does golf and tennis, though its No. 1 player typically has caused little debate -- from Ken Griffey Jr. to Barry Bonds to Alex Rodriguez to Albert Pujols. Pujols' consistency is remarkable, especially measured against Hamilton's career. Hamilton is 29 and only 16 months older than Pujols, but has yet to play 100 games in back-to-back seasons -- minors or majors. But in the snapshot of today's game, based on skill set and production right now, Hamilton is the new BPB -- Best Player in Baseball. At the end of the year he could wind up with the batting title, MVP, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove and All-Star Game election, all for a first-place team.

The game last Friday against Boston belongs in a time capsule, so that when somebody who never saw him play wonders what Hamilton could do on a baseball field, just that one game will suffice.

"There aren't many days when Josh goes 0-for-4," Daniels said, "but if it does happen there are so many other ways he can help us win a game. Josh can influence the outcome of a game with his bat and glove.

"And when he goes from first to third, he's able to turn it on with his head up and without breaking stride and can see the ball or the coach. I was fortunate to see Larry Walker one year in Colorado. He runs the bases like that. He runs with his head up at full speed. He accelerates to full speed quickly, cuts the bases perfectly, and all the while his eyes are where they're supposed to be."

Walker and Bonds are the only outfielders in the past 50 years to hit .360 with 30 homers -- measurements within Hamilton's grasp. The men to do it before them were Mantle, Musial, DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

Hamilton is nothing more than a breathtaking comet for the moment. He has no real career to speak of and no certainty to his future. He threw away his early years in baseball because of drug addiction, endured an alcohol-related relapse last year, and his years trying to remain clean have been marred by injuries. He has played fewer major league games than Billy Butler, the 24-year-old Kansas City first baseman.

New Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg would love to lock up Hamilton this winter to a contract extension that buys out at least one year of free agency. (Hamilton is under Texas' control for two more arbitration-eligible seasons.) But what kind of length could be guaranteed when his body of work, however great, is so checkered? His value is complicated, too, by the oddity of not earning free agent rights until he is 31 years old. Remember, age matters in baseball now. There is not one player today in his age 36 season or older who is healthy and has an OPS better than .800.

Just for argument's sake, you could draw a faint comparison to Kevin Youkilis, another rare late bloomer, who signed his extension with the Red Sox in 2009 at age 29 -- Hamilton's age now -- and with two arbitration years remaining and coming off a year in which he finished third in MVP voting. He signed for $41.125 million over four years. Here's how Youkilis' numbers then match up with those of Hamilton now:

Kevin Youkilis vs. Josh Hamilton
Player Age G HR RBI AVG/OBP/SLG OPS
Youkilis 29 553 66 314 .289/.385/.472 .857
Hamilton 29 447 87 311 .310/.370/.541 .911

Hamilton will have bigger numbers and more awards on which to bargain. He will lack the bigger body of work. The Rangers briefly discussed a contract extension with Hamilton in spring training of 2009, shortly after Youkilis signed, but the club hit a financial downward spiral that eventually led to bankruptcy and Hamilton played only 89 games while spending two stints on the disabled list. Both developments put extension talks off to the side.

Greenberg inherits many financial loose ends in addition to a possible Hamilton extension. The contracts of manager Ron Washington, pitcher Cliff Lee, DH Vladimir Guerrero, catcher Bengie Molina and reliever Frank Francisco all expire this year. All issues are likely to be set aside until after the postseason, in which Texas tries to win its first-ever postseason series.

"Let's not cloud the picture right now," Daniels said.

In the meantime, the Rangers will do the best they can to keep Hamilton healthy, which is why they need center fielder Julio Borbon to hit. If Borbon doesn't hit, the Rangers have to play Hamilton more in center field than they would like, with David Murphy in left field and Nelson Cruz, when he recovers from a hamstring strain, in right field. They also need to give Hamilton a few more days at DH while resting Guerrero.

"It's hard to take Josh out of the lineup," Daniels said.

Who knows how long Hamilton can keep up this pace? He already has dealt with tendinitis in his right knee this month. But for now, the sight of a guy built like an NFL strong safety crashing into walls, blasting long home runs, flying around the bases, and chasing a batting title with a 22-point lead on Miguel Cabrera is something to behold. There is nothing like it in baseball.

 
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