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Should the Rangers bring up Josh Hamilton’s substance abuse history if they go to arbitration?

File photo of Texas Rangers' outfielder Josh Hamilton waiting to hit during workouts in preparation for Major League Baseball's World Series in San Francisco

Texas Rangers’ outfielder Josh Hamilton waits to hit during workouts in preparation for Major League Baseball’s World Series in San Francisco, in this October 26, 2010 file photograph. Slugging outfielder Josh Hamilton, who helped the Texas Rangers reach their first World Series, capped a storybook season on November 23, 2010 by winning the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. Hamilton, 29, won the batting title with a .359 average and led the league in slugging percentage (.633). He belted 32 home runs and had 100 runs batted in despite missing most of the last month of the season due to injured ribs. Picture taken October 26, 2010. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)


Unless they settle with either a one-year deal or a big lockup package, Josh Hamilton and the Rangers are slated to head to an arbitration hearing sometime soon. From that an interesting question emerges: how hard do the Rangers hit him -- if they hit him at all -- with his substance abuse history?

The immediate answer that comes to mind may be “none at all! How rude that would be!” I get that, and as I’ll write below, I agree that they ultimately shouldn’t go there. But arbitration is litigation and the litigation process is such that it’s really, really difficult to pull one’s punches. And not just because of rudeness concerns, but because of precedent.

An arbitration doesn’t just set the current player’s salary. It’s used as a baseline for later players with similar production and similar service time who head into the process themselves. If one team eases up on Josh Hamilton, other teams heading into arbitration with their Hamiltonian super stars will have a tougher hill to climb in order to prevail. In a way, then, the integrity of the process requires that the parties fight their hardest case possible.

And it’s not hard to see how Hamilton’s history could, theoretically, be used against him. Not on moral grounds, per se, but because his drug use took away from many important development years. Hamilton has had an injury history. If the Rangers want to argue that that history gives them pause, could they not -- and should they not -- point to Hamilton’s abnormal development as a player as a potential reason for concern? Could they not also point to his brief and highly-publicized relapse in 2009 as an added risk factor with respect to future playing time? Another relapse and -- bam! -- he’s in rehab. I’m not saying that they should do that, just that they could.

MLB Trade Rumors spoke with someone today who cautioned the Rangers on that front:

The Rangers could bring up Hamilton’s injury history and past substance abuse, but they would have to do so subtly, says Michael Vlessides, a veteran arbitration consultant. “It’s the fine line between how much do you pick on the guy who’s the MVP. If you do it too much, you can lose a lot of credibility” Vlessides said. Beating MVPs in arbitration hearings isn’t easy, but the Pirates beat Barry Bonds after he won his first MVP in 1990 and again the following offseason.

I’ll go one better and say that trashing an MVP is not just a bad thing to do for credibility purposes, but that it’s a bad thing to do with Josh Hamilton and his drug history specifically for strategic purposes.

Why would Hamilton’s history be a detriment to his value? Sure, it may be for many other players, but Hamilton is a unique case. That relapse notwithstanding, he’s turned his story into something of a fairytale. It’s triumph-over-adversity stuff, and if anything it has made him a much more popular player than he otherwise would be. There’s value in that. Actual financial value to the Rangers that could make bringing the subject up worse for them than if they leave it alone.

Personally, I’d have a hard time seeing the Rangers go there. They’re not a dumb organization. Since Nolan Ryan took over, they seem to go out of their way to avoid ruffling their own players’ feathers, and I see no reason why they’d start with Hamilton.

But I also suspect that they know what Hamilton is all about, both as a player and as a phenomenon. It’s not easy for baseball to bring totally new fans into the fold. People who wouldn’t otherwise pay attention. If anyone has brought those kinds of fans into the game in the past couple of years, it’s Josh Hamilton, and I presume the Rangers are well aware of this.