Josh Hamilton will miss at least the first month of the 2016 season because of an ailing left knee, leaving the Texas Rangers to consider how they will fill a vacancy in left field and in a key spot in the lineup.
Assistant general manager Thad Levine delivered the update Wednesday morning after a lengthy meeting with Hamilton, who will be on crutches for a week to 10 days after receiving stem cell and platelet-rich plasma injections, and then be allowed to begin baseball activities.
The Rangers have targeted an April rehab assignment and an early May return for Hamilton, who was acquired 10 months ago from the Los Angeles Angels. The Angels are paying the vast majority of Hamilton’s remaining contract, which this year will pay him $30 million.
Hamilton, bothered throughout the off-season following arthroscopic knee surgery in October, said that the news wasn’t what he wanted, but he has some peace of mind now that a plan is in place to help his knee get better.
“If this makes it 50 percent better, I’ll be good to go,” Hamilton said. “Somebody asked me today, ‘Are you getting right?’ I said, ‘It’ll never be right, but it’s going to get better.’
“That’s the focus. As an athlete, you don’t want to get pushed back. But at the same time, I really felt it was something that needed to be done now.”
Levine said the second opinion offered by Dr. Jeff Dugas and Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., confirmed the original diagnosis by Rangers physician Keith Meister of swelling in a capsule in the knee.
The Rangers were already convinced that Hamilton wouldn’t be an everyday player this season. Levine said that while the news wasn’t what they were hoping, it could have been worse.
“I think this is probably somewhere in the middle,” Levine said. “You always hope when you go for a second opinion that you’re able to get right back on the field, but in this instance it’s certainly a middle-case scenario where we’re going to be without him for the first month. That certainly hurts, but we’ll have his services from that point forward.”
The Rangers were encouraged last year by the idea of Hamilton having a full spring training following a crash course to get ready for 2015 after the April trade. He was injured the first week and twice more during the season.
The eight-week program the Rangers have designed for Hamilton won’t have any shortcuts in it.
“That’s exactly why we have a program that is eight weeks long. Our intent is to give him the benefit of a full spring training, not cut any corners. We felt last year as if maybe a few of those corners were cut, and as a result he came back to us and had the hamstring injury early on in the process.”
The Rangers have been in contact with multiple free agents, including former fan favorite David Murphy. The Tarrant County resident is seeking a big-league deal, a source said, but would consider signing a minor league deal with the Rangers as long as he was assured of enough spring at-bats to either make the team or make a favorable impression on scouts from other organizations that might need an outfielder.
Levine said that talks with continue with players outside the organization, but the Rangers could opt to go with players they have in the organization.
Ryan Rua is in camp. He was the left fielder on Opening Day last season.
“It’s the same mindset as last year,” said Rua, who was injured during the home opener. “We have a bunch of guys out there competing and pushing each other. It’s a good thing I have already been through it. You just bust your tail and get after it.”
James Jones also looks like more of a possibility for the Opening Day roster, though he profiles more as a center fielder.
It might be too early for prized prospects Nomar Mazara and Lewis Brinson to make the team, and the Rangers are sticking to their plan to have Joey Gallo play primarily third base this spring.
“That’s bad news that Hamilton is out,” said Mazara, who finished last season at Triple A Round Rock. “I’m going to do my job getting ready and try to make the most of my spring training. What we all want is to be in the big leagues. Everybody is going to have that opportunity, and when that opportunity comes, I’m going to be ready.”
The Rangers, though, are weary of a possible setback with Hamilton, and that could lead to the addition of a free agent who has more experience.
“We’re in a pretty similar spot,” Levine said. “We feel as if we have some great candidates in-house. We are very aware of the players that are still on the free-agent market, and we’re still having conversations with those guys.”
Rangers left-field candidates
Ryan Rua: He was the Opening Day left fielder last season but had his season marred by a foot injury.
James Jones: He brings speed and a strong arm to all three outfield spots.
Nomar Mazara: Batted .358 (29-81) in his Triple A debut, but might need more time there.
Joey Gallo: He played left field in the majors last season, but will focus on third base.
Lewis Brinson: Even more inexperience at Triple A than Mazara (30 at-bats), but he’s rising fast.
David Murphy: The former Rangers outfielder had 10 homers, 50 RBIs in majors last season.
Austin Jackson: Denton native is fast, a nice defender and occasionally hits for power.
Drew Stubbs: A defensive specialist, the former Texas star finished 2015 with Rangers.
Will Venable: Another Rangers addition late in 2015 knows how to be a part-time player.