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Hamilton welcome addition to Rangers

Hamilton welcome addition to Rangers

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Josh Hamilton gets ready to pass another signpost in the incredible journey that his life has taken the past 10 years. The Rangers are expecting this next stage to be something special.

The legend is already starting to build in the desert about a player who combines the curly hair, perpetual grin and rogue-boyish looks of a grown-up Huckleberry Finn with the jaw-dropping physical attributes of Paul Bunyan.

Yes, he has looked that impressive, especially in batting practice. Just ask those who have been watching closely for the past few weeks.

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"Where should I start?" marveled All-Star shortstop Michael Young. "I mean, [his] abilities are off the chart. In my lifetime I have played with just one guy who was at that level, and that was Alex Rodriguez. That's saying a lot.

"But he does everything well on the field. I take that back: He does everything on the field at a high level. I take that back too: He does everything on the field at the highest level."

The attributes checklist is what baseball people call the "five tools." Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher defined the term when speaking about another Hall of Famer, Willie Mays.

The tools are run, throw, field, hit and hit with power. They are the five standards by which all position players are measured, and few have been able to measure up in all five. The Rangers think they have a player who can do just that.

Pitching has definitely been a concern for the Rangers over many years and that remains a focus in Spring Training. But the most exciting thing about the 2008 Rangers could be their 26-year-old left-handed-hitting center fielder who grades out above-average or better in all of Durocher's categories.

Even while Rangers players gather around the batting cage and watch Hamilton drive baseballs into oblivion, they know a front-line, immensely talented center fielder racing into Rangers Ballpark's vast gaps could be a huge boost for the pitching staff.

"One of the things that we talked about as a staff this winter was looking for players who could play both ways in the game -- offensively and defensively -- and do it well," general manager Jon Daniels said. "Josh fits that mold. Obviously he's got power; everybody who has watched him take batting practice can see that. But it's all not just raw power. His instincts for the game are good. He has a real understanding of playing the game."

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The growing feeling in the desert is Hamilton could be on the verge of the kind of player the Devil Rays had envisioned when they made him the No. 1 overall draft pick in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft. That was before Hamilton's perilous plunge beyond personal purgatory, first with injuries and then the death-like grip of an insidious drug addiction that had him on the brink of complete self-destruction.

There was a point where most people felt comfortable saying they would never expect to see Hamilton on a baseball field again. They were wrong. Giving all credit to his family, his support system, and renewed and unswerving faith in God, Hamilton is back in center field where he belongs, and not the gutters of life.

"It's like He's standing beside me, plugged into me," Hamilton said. "I'm not one of those guys who talks about God because it sounds good. It's because He changed my life. One thing I keep in mind first thing in the morning is no matter what I do, the Man upstairs already knows what will happen.

"All I can do is play to the best of my ability and have fun. If I strike out or make an error, I will know in my heart that I at least did my best. That's the way I looked at it last year whether I went 4-for-4 or 0-for-4."

Last year marked Hamilton's reawakening as a baseball player. Demons were beaten back and Hamilton, after multiple suspensions, was able to work his way back into the good graces of Major League Baseball. He was awarded another chance -- quite possibly his last -- and the Reds gave it to him last season after taking him from the Devil Rays (via the Cubs) in the Rule 5 draft.

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Hamilton made the most of it, hitting .292 with 19 home runs and 47 RBI's. With a .368 on-base percentage and a .554 slugging percentage, Hamilton finished with a .922 OPS that was 23rd best in the Major Leagues among players with at least 275 at-bats. Not bad for a guy who had basically missed 3 1/2 years because of all his travails.

"If you told me he would put up the numbers that he did when we drafted him, I'd be thrilled," Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said.

Injuries kept his numbers from being even more impressive. Hamilton played in just 98 games, twice spending time on the disabled list for gastroenteritis and a sprained wrist. One problem was Hamilton worked too hard. Former Reds manager Jerry Narron said Hamilton would work himself into exhaustion before the game and then attempt to play nine innings a night over the course of 162-game season. It just didn't work, and Hamilton is trying to understand that.

"Last year was a learning experience," Hamilton said. "I felt I had to make up for three years and I'd come to the park every day taking 200 swings, maybe even more. Then came the wrist injury. Now I've learned to take quality swings rather than quantity. Taking 40 swings is just as good if you do it right."

The Rangers acquired him in the off-season for pitchers Edinson Volquez and Danny Herrera. The Rangers understand the overwhelming need for pitching but they also understand their offense has slipped of late. The outfield especially has been a problem. The Rangers haven't had an outfielder hit more than 25 home runs or drive in more than 79 runs in a season since 1999.

Gary Matthews Jr. is the only Rangers outfielder to make the All-Star team in this decade. He did so in 2006 when he hit .313 with 102 runs scored, 19 home runs and 79 RBI's while playing standout center field. Then he left as a free agent in the offseason.

Now comes Hamilton and Young said, "It's great to have a top-flight center fielder out there. We saw what Matthews did for us in 2006. He changed the game for us. He did it all for us.

"We expect the same things from Josh."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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