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Hamilton stuck in holding pattern

Free-agent outfielder rumored to be in talks with Rangers, Mariners

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- That Josh Hamilton visited the Winter Meetings this week is not entirely unusual. Premier free agents have been known to pop in on the proceedings on occasion, usually for the final conversations and handshakes before the dotted line is signed.

For Hamilton to leave the Music City, as he did Tuesday, and for his 2013 destination to still be uncertain (perhaps less certain than ever), well, yeah, that's a little unusual.

But then again, what isn't unusual about one of the more fascinating free-agent cases in history?

Give Hamilton and his secretive agent, Mike Moye, credit for the cloud of confusion. This is a Hot Stove mystery worthy of a paperback, and Hamilton's complicated case is further complicated by the ongoing, undecided situations involving Justin Upton and Zack Greinke, among others.

We do have some clues as to how this will all turn out. Only time will tell how reliable those clues are.

Several clubs have fed the media hints or outright claims that they don't want to go beyond four years for Hamilton. But in a market in which the prices and commitments for even middling talent have been significantly jacked up, those might be difficult promises to keep.

Late Wednesday came word, via the Seattle Times, that the Mariners were "very close" to getting a deal done. And then this word was almost immediate shut down by team president Chuck Armstrong, who told USA Today that the club was "not close" to signing Hamilton. Thing is, if the M's are viewed by Hamilton as his first fallback option, should the Rangers go elsewhere for offense, both of those statements can be true.

Earlier in the week came word, via Ron Washington, that the Rangers have been assured by Hamilton's camp that they'll have the chance to counter any offer he receives. But we also know that the Rangers have a lot of balls in the air, so to speak, given that they are in on Greinke and open to discussions with the Mets about R.A. Dickey, the Rays about James Shields and, most importantly, the D-backs about Justin Upton.

If the Rangers land Upton, it would stand to reason that they would not be interested in re-signing Hamilton. If they trade for Dickey or Shields or some other front-line starter, it would stand to reason that they'd want to spend big on a bat. But if they spend big on Greinke, who reportedly is deciding between the Dodgers and Rangers, it could be a case where they have to improve the offense via trade, rather than doling out more dollars.

Then again, given the Rangers' television-aided financial clout, can we totally rule out the possibility of them signing both Greinke and Hamilton, much like the Angels landing both Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson a year ago? Probably not.

And are we 100 percent sure the Rangers and the Mariners are the only teams in the final running? Of course not. We know the Red Sox met with Hamilton. We know the Phillies and Brewers have talked about him. And though they have given absolutely no indication whatsoever that they're going to get involved with a free agent of this level this winter, you never completely rule out the Yankees in matters such as these.

Anyway, the point is, the Hamilton situation, because of his past injuries and addictions and the bewildering end to his 2012 season, was complex to begin with. That it now involves multiple teams and multiple premier players only adds to the confusion, and the storyline can change any given second.

What we need, then, is a domino to fall.

It would seem -- and this is merely a guess -- the Greinke contract will be the first. Because if Greinke truly is commanding anywhere in the neighborhood of CC Sabathia's $161 million contract, as has been reported, that puts an awfully small number of teams in the running (and the Rangers and Dodgers may, indeed, be the only ones left standing). So at that point, it simply comes down to where Greinke wants to be, and that's a decision that should come soon.

Perhaps the Upton talks will be settled more swiftly, though that seems doubtful. We've known for a long time that the D-backs are open to moving him, and talks with his representatives reveal that Upton would love to get out of Arizona after all the public battering his reputation has taken as a result of this openness. It would seem the D-backs have more motivation than ever to get a deal done, but aligning the proper pieces has obviously been an issue.

The Indians can offer them the star shortstop they're looking for in Asdrubal Cabrera, but Upton is not going to Cleveland. The Rays can offer starters Shields or Jeremy Hellickson, but Upton probably is not going to Tampa Bay. The Rangers seem a suitable landing place for Upton, but they've been reluctant to part with shortstops Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar. The Braves have the ability to have a pair of Uptons in their outfield, but they don't want to move shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

That's why these crazy, multi-team proposals have been bantered back and forth. Generally, GMs will tell you that getting a deal done between two teams is difficult. Add a third, a fourth, a fifth, and the degree of difficulty increases exponentially.

Much of the industry, then, left the Winter Meetings in a holding pattern, of sorts. And the Hamilton market is one part -- a big one -- of that muddled picture.

We knew this Hamilton stuff was unusual. Nothing about his career, to date, would qualify as "usual."

But the plot thickened significantly at these Winter Meetings. We expected clarity, but, truth is, we might have more confusion than ever.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.
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