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Go Bold Or Go Home: Don't Draft Josh Hamilton

Since outfield is traditionally the deepest fantasy position, there are a number of different strategies you can take in your draft in regards to filling your outfield.  Some managers choose to fill their thinner positions early and not draft any outfielders whatsoever until after the 10th round; others take advantage of managers who use the first tactic and load up on the elite outfielders early; yet others take one elite guy in the first round or two as their 'cornerstone' outfielder and then wait until later, confident that they have at least one top outfielder already in the fold.

If you're employing either of these last two strategies, then my message is especially important --- stay away from Josh Hamilton.  If you're counting on him as a cornerstone that allows you to take risks and experiments with your other OF spots, it will backfire since Hamilton himself is a big risk.  If you're going to take Hamilton as one of several elite OFs early, it's a waste of an early draft pick. 

Why am I so down on Hamilton?  After all, on paper he's the third-best outfielder available in fantasy, after Ryan Braun and Mike Trout and at least tied with Matt Kemp and Andrew McCutchen.  Hamilton is moving into a loaded Angels lineup that includes Trout, Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and Howie Kendrick, so he'll have every opportunity to see good pitches and drive in runs.

All that said, if Hamilton comes in your draft queue early, I suggest you take a pass.  And, if you have Hamilton in a keeper league I'd suggest selling high on him right now.  I'm not saying Hamilton will completely nosedive a la Adam Dunn in 2011, but there is evidence to suggest that Hamilton's downhill slide could come sooner rather than later...

* Age.  Hamilton turns 32 in May and you don't need me to tell you how common it is for players (even elite talents) to fall off a cliff as they get deeper into their 30's.  The argument has been made that Hamilton is a "young 31" given how his career started late due to his substance abuse issues, and Hamilton is coming off a season in which he had 636 PAs and appeared in 148 games.  During the previous three seasons, however, Hamilton spent significant time on the DL.  Every passing year leads to a bit less confidence that a player can keep up his performance, and I simply think that an early fantasy pick would be better used on a player already in his prime or just entering it, rather than a player whose prime is, theoretically, already over.

* Off-the-field concerns.  It's the elephant in the room when it comes to Hamilton and it can't be ignored entirely, though I hesitate to bring it up since a man's life shouldn't be fodder for a fantasy column.  Hamilton unquestionably has baggage but it isn't damning baggage --- it's not like Miguel Cabrera is seen as any less valuable due to his battles with alcohol or (to cite a different kind of drug) it's not like Braun is any less of a frontline fantasy pick due to his connection to PEDs.  We saw last season how Hamilton's difficulties with a comparatively low-level addiction can impact his play, as his slump through June and July (a .202/.288/.399 line over 47 games) was largely attributed to Hamilton trying to quit chewing tobacco during that same period.

* Swings and misses.  Hamilton struck out in 25.5% of his at-bats last season, a heavy increase over his previous career high of a 21.6% K-rate in 2009.  This spike was due to Hamilton becoming increasingly susceptible to pitches thrown outside the strike zone, particularly sliders and curveballs.  As noted by Pedro Moura in that first linked article, what makes Hamilton's strikeout rate so problematic is that he doesn't take enough walks to compensate.  If he can't walk and is prone to striking out, Hamilton becomes over-reliant on his power, which brings us to....

* Park effects.  Like most batters, Hamilton loves Rangers Ballpark, boasting a massive .965 OPS over 1439 career PAs in Arlington.  He'll lose that homefield advantage in 2013, however, as he moves from one of baseball's most homer-friendly parks to one of its least-accommodating for sluggers.  (Hamilton has a .765 career OPS over 166 PAs at Angel Stadium, but that's far too small a sample size to use as a predictor of what Hamilton will hit next year.)  We just need to look at Pujols last year to see how it can take even the best of hitters time to adjust to The Big A, though in fairness, Pujols recovered pretty nicely over the last four months of the season and Hamilton has much more experience hitting in Anaheim than Pujols did.  I'd be stunned, however, to see Hamilton post another 43-homer season in that stadium; he may be hard-pressed to even crack the 30-homer plateau as many of Hamilton's big fly balls will turn into long outs in the Pacific air.

The Halos looked at Hamilton and saw red flags --- literally, as in pennants flying in the outfield at Angel Stadium.  I look at Hamilton and see red flags in the colloquial sense, and I wouldn't spent $12.50 on him in a fantasy auction, let alone $125MM in real-world money.  There are just simply safer, more predictable and very likely better choices out there for your fantasy outfield.  While Hamilton may post a month or two that makes you regret passing on him, his final 2013 numbers will make you happy you didn't spend a first- or second-round draft choice on what I think will be an increasingly flawed player.

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