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Led by Hamilton, a deep free-agent outfield market

Led by Hamilton, a deep free-agent outfield market

Led by Hamilton, a deep free-agent outfield market
Josh Hamilton was the No. 1 overall selection by the Rays in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft. Three years later, Tampa Bay took B.J. Upton with the No. 2 overall pick, and a year after that, the Rays selected Delmon Young with the No. 1 pick.

They now have something else in common. The three former top Draft picks for Tampa Bay are among the top outfielders available this offseason in the free-agent market. All three could easily end up signing with a new team.

They are among the high-profile players in a relatively deep group that runs the gamut from a potential Hall of Famer in Ichiro Suzuki to a one-time perennial All-Star in Andruw Jones to proven center fielders such as Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan and Shane Victorino. Cody Ross, Ryan Ludwick and Jonny Gomes are corner outfielders who have proven to be valuable players on winning teams.

There is the redoubtable Torii Hunter, who still provides plenty of production to go with his superb leadership qualities, and Melky Cabrera, who was having a dream season for the Giants before his 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs turned it all into a nightmare. Johnny Damon may be looking for a job, along with Grady Sizemore, Marlon Byrd, Bobby Abreu and Rick Ankiel.

Then there is Nick Swisher, the switch-hitting right fielder who turns 32 this month and averaged 26 home runs and 87 RBIs with a .268 batting average and a .483 slugging percentage over the past four seasons with the Yankees.

So there is plenty to choose from, ranging from center fielders who can bat leadoff to corner guys who can hit in the middle of a lineup.

But above all there is Hamilton, the five-tool, five-time All-Star who won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 2010 and hit .285 with 43 home runs and 128 RBIs in 2012 for the Rangers.

By almost any standard, Hamilton is the best of the bunch and at the top of the list for all position players on the free-agent market. Pitcher Zack Greinke may be his only rival in that regard.

There is still no indication where Hamilton will land or if he'll be able to procure the mega-contract that his talents would normally command. It's almost unfathomable that he won't score a lengthy contract worth more than $20 million annually.

The Rangers made the necessary qualifying offer of $13.3 million in order to receive Draft-pick compensation if Hamilton signs with another team. But Texas has yet to make a serious effort to try to re-sign Hamilton. Instead the Rangers are letting him explore the market. Hamilton said they will get the last chance, but that may not be enough to get him back if another team is truly willing to go all-out.

Hamilton's age and history of injuries and substance abuse make that a risk. But that is true of many free-agent outfielders who are over 30, as the Red Sox found out with Carl Crawford, the Mets found out with Jason Bay and the Nationals found out with Jayson Werth.

Upton is only 28 and has played in at least 144 games in each of the past five seasons. Over the past six full seasons, he has batted .255 with a .338 on-base percentage and a .430 slugging percentage while averaging 19 home runs, 71 RBIs and 36 stolen bases per season.

Upton is 10 days younger than Cabrera, the 2012 All-Star Game MVP who was hitting .346 with 11 home runs and 60 RBIs in 113 games for the Giants before being suspended. It isn't clear how teams view Cabrera or what they could expect from him in the future. Certainly somebody will offer at least a one-year contract to find out.

On the other hand, Swisher and Bourn offer track records of consistency. Swisher has played the equivalent of eight full seasons in the Major Leagues, with a 162-game average of .256 with 28 home runs, 90 RBIs, 143 strikeouts, a .361 on-base percentage and a .467 slugging percentage. He has not been on the disabled list since 2005.

Bourn is a leadoff hitter who has averaged 85 runs, 51 stolen bases and a.339 on-base percentage for every 162 games in his seven-year career. He has also won two Gold Gloves.

Hunter has won nine Gold Gloves. The last one was in 2009, when he was still in center field for the Angels. He played strictly in right field last season, and at age 37, he may no longer be viewed as a front-line center fielder. But few players get forced to a corner by the likes of Mike Trout, and Hunter did set a career high by hitting .313 this past season.

That still was not good enough to get a qualifying offer from the Angels. Hamilton, Upton, Swisher and Bourn were the only four free-agent outfielders who received qualifying offers from their former teams. That could lead to a good market for Hunter, because the team signing him will not have to surrender a Draft pick in the process.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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