10/31/12 4:31 PM ET
Hamilton and Hunter at top of free-agent class
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
Free agency suddenly fires up the hot stove, and two of the most intriguing names on the potential list of candidates for new homes come from the game's best, most competitive division: the American League West.
Josh Hamilton, arguably the most talented ballplayer not named Mike Trout, and Torii Hunter, widely considered the best teammate in the game, are about to hit the open market if the Rangers and Angels do not retain their services.
If neither outfielder is signed by the Friday deadline, teams with needs will have an opportunity to upgrade significantly.
One possibility that exists is Hunter moving to Texas -- he makes his offseason home an easy drive from Arlington -- to replace Hamilton.
Wouldn't that add a little spicy salsa to the AL West guacamole?
Hamilton is the biggest name in the marketplace, a game-changer with otherworldy talent devalued somewhat by a history of not playing full schedules and his heavily-documented personal struggles with substance abuse.
When he's in the lineup and feeling it at the plate, he can carry a team for a month. When he's not on the field or not feeling it, as was the case late in the season, he can be a source of profound frustration.
The landscape is uncertain for Hamilton, the classic high-risk, high-reward player who turns 32 in May. The familiar big spenders -- the Yankees and Red Sox -- are focused elsewhere, but a number of intriguing possible destinations exist.
For example, San Francisco.
There is no hint that the Giants are giving it any thought, serious or otherwise, in the afterglow of their second title in three years. They are secure with what they have, a deep, relatively young roster with great chemistry and no apparent holes.
And yet, how could they not at least ponder what Hamilton would bring to the lineup in concert with Buster Posey, the likely National League MVP, and Pablo Sandoval, the World Series MVP?
Angel Pagan, who had a solid season in center field, also is an impending free agent. For perhaps twice the cost, Hamilton could bring a whole new dimension to the Giants, giving them a matchless 3-4-5 to confront the free-spending Dodgers.
This is a clubhouse that opens its arms wide to any and all personalities, led by a manager, Bruce Bochy, who has a golden touch with people of all types and temperaments. It's the secret to his success.
Hamilton could play left in San Francisco, with Gregor Blanco taking his brilliant glove and speed to center.
Another NL division champion, Cincinnati, could be a fit for Hamilton. That's where Josh launched his remarkable comeback in 2007 before the Reds shipped him to Texas for Edinson Volquez. The Reds' park is made for Hamilton, and no manager in the game, including Bochy, commands more respect among players than Dusty Baker.
Joey Votto and Hamilton back-to-back would ease the sting for fans of their club's NL Division Series demise at the hands of the Giants.
Another possible contender is Milwaukee, which has Hamilton's old Texas confidant, Jerry Narron, in its employ as manager Ron Roenicke's bench coach. Nobody in baseball knows Hamilton better than Narron.
Bringing Hamilton into the fold would give Ryan Braun a playmate to replace the thunder Prince Fielder delivered behind him before moving on to Detroit.
Miller Park is customized, like Rangers Ballpark, for the man who launched 43 homers this season in 148 games. Only in his 2008 MVP campaign did Hamilton play more often.
In search of an impact import for a sluggish offense, the Phillies also could factor heavily into the Hamilton sweepstakes.
With respect to Hunter, the Angels have a difficult decision to make. Their payroll is sky-high, and they might decide it's time to move on with a young, potentially dynamic outfield of Trout, Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo, backed by Vernon Wells and Kole Calhoun.
If the Angels make Hunter a qualifying offer and he declines, the team that signs him would surrender a Draft pick.
Turning 37 in July, Hunter had a brilliant 2012 season, hitting a career-high .313 in the No. 2 hole between the wondrous Trout and Albert Pujols, while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense in right field.
Hunter has few, if any, peers as a leader. He has been instrumental in the development of Trout and Bourjos, notably, and the clubhouse has been his domain since his arrival as a free agent in 2008. He would be missed, but the Angels clearly are focused on retaining starter Zack Greinke, another potential free agent.
Hunter in Texas? Why not. He'd be home full time, with his family, and he'd fit right into that mix with the ability to play center or left, and hit anywhere manager Ron Washington needs him. The Rangers would embrace his multiple talents and unquestioned mental toughness.
Hunter has been at his best under pressure, as he has hit .305 with a .489 slugging percentage and a .858 OPS in 34 postseason games. Hamilton, also in 34 postseason games, has hit .227, slugged .424 and has a .720 OPS.
The Tigers could slide Hunter between Austin Jackson and Cabrera in their lethal lineup and upgrade their defense with him in right.
Another intriguing potential landing spot for Hunter is Boston. One of his best buddies in the game, David Ortiz, would welcome Hunter, and heaven knows, the Red Sox could use the positive impact of the most relentlessly upbeat athlete in the sport.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.