Never mind the big-market teams, could the Brewers walk away from the offseason with the biggest free-agent hitter on the market? My friend Christina Kahrl, writing for the ESPN.com's Sweetspot, sure does. Thanks to the low-key, supportive environment of Milwaukee and the Brewers' need of a big lefty bat to help them win in the short term, she may not be wrong.
We are speaking, of course, of Josh Hamilton -- who else? Have patience - we're about to turn aside from this well-beaten ex-horse of a hot stove rumor. A team like Milwaukee has to weigh the risks of signing a high-priced free agent even more than most clubs given the limited revenue streams the club has in place to absorb Hamilton's deal if it goes south. When I look at Hamilton, all I see is risk. His back problems are chronic, he's proven breakable and brittle, and he suffered through several illnesses that were apparently related to withdrawal from caffeine and chewing tobacco addictions in the last year. He hasn't played more than 140 games in the outfield since 2008 and (I feel dirty bringing this up) there's always a small chance that he could succumb again to the temptations of drugs and alcohol. He's also going to be 32 and on the verge of his decline phase.
Last, but by no means least, Hamilton is on record as wanting a seven-year, $175 million contract. Regardless of whether or not he'll get that much (he won't) when that's his starting position, chances are whichever team signs him is going to have to significantly overpay. Better to conserve that cash to spend it on somebody who's significantly more reliable and cost effective. Here are five guys on whom I'd much rather spend the money it would take to sign Hamilton:
1 Adam LaRoche
Corey Hart wasn't a good defensive right fielder, but he was fairly questionable around first as well. LaRoche can certainly fill the role of the lefty thumper that Christina advocated. He's an average defender at first and has been durable aside from labrum surgery in 2011. And he'll cost a whole lot less and come for fewer years than Hamilton.
2 Nick Swisher
Swisher is just six months older than Hamilton, but has played at least 148 games each of the last seven seasons while providing consistently strong offense and adequate-to-good corner-outfield defense (depending on what stat you're looking at). He's also a switch hitter who has hit .250/.342/.478 over his career from the left side and has not been significantly helped by Yankee Stadium. Like LaRoche, he would cost less for less of a time-commitment than Hamilton.
3 Denard Span
Span will cost a pitching prospect or two, but is a strong defender and leadoff man (or #2 hitter) who is cost-controlled for at least two more seasons, giving the Brewers more money to play with to bring in a starting pitcher like Dan Haren or Ryan Dempster. One caveat is that Span doesn't really have the arm you'd want in a right fielder, but an outfield of Ryan Braun, Norichika Aoki/Carlos Gomez, and Span would cover a lot of ground.
4 Kyle Blanks
The gigantic Blanks signed a one-year deal with the Padres just the other day for $600,000, but San Diego already has five other outfielders under control for 2013, plus Yonder Alonso at first base. At 26, Blanks doesn't have a lot of room for growth, but he's destroyed pitching at every minor league level and has had major-league success in the past. He's been incredibly prone to injury, going on the disabled list in each of the last four seasons, including 60-day stints in 2010 and 2012. Most recently he suffered from a torn labrum, and probably figures to need to move to first base full time. If he can stay healthy at the less demanding defensive spot, Blanks figures to be at least a league-average hitter with the potential to be a breakout star on the cheap. It's probably safe to assume he wouldn't take much to get from the Padres, given how poorly he fits on their current roster.
Even if Doug Melvin doesn't go after Zack Greinke (you know, again), there are some really good second-tier starting pitchers out there right now, hurlers such as Ryan Dempster, Dan Haren, Brandon McCarthy, and Hiroki Kuroda (though he seems picky about where he's headed). The bullpen could also use some rebuilding. Reduce the runs you allow and you won't need the extra runs that Hamilton could provide.
6 Nothing :(
Look, I know the Brewers are aging, as Christina points out, and the window to strike is probably closing. Still, everybody but Gomez (who I've previously argued isn't a great bet to repeat) and Corey Hart will be back in 2014, and with no perfect fit on the market now, maybe holding onto that money to spend on a midyear pickup or a big push next winter is the way to go. A team with Milwaukee's revenue stream shouldn't be looking to force a fit so that they end up trapped under dead money as they try to build the next NL Central division winner.