When the Texas Rangers traded for Josh Hamilton in late April, it was easy to interpret the deal as a low-risk move that, at the least, would help generate interest in an otherwise uninteresting team.

But now, you can’t help but wonder if the Rangers will end up getting more than they bargained for.

It’s not because Hamilton’s 2015 debut went particularly well. In four plate appearances against the Cleveland Indians on Monday, the veteran left fielder went 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts. The only other time he reached base was in the seventh inning on an error by Tribe hurler Zach McAllister, who gathered a weak chopper and threw it into right field.

On the bright side, that error did allow the Rangers to score the go-ahead run in an eventual 10-8 victory. On an even brighter side, the Rangers have now won six in a row to push their record to 22-23.

That’s obviously not very good, but it at least counts as a passable record in this year’s American League. There are two elite teams in Kansas City and Houston—if you’ve traveled forward in time from April 2014, yes, that’s actually true—but mainly mediocrity elsewhere. Hence why the Rangers are only 3.5 games out of the AL wild-card race.

Or, to put it another way: on the opposite side of the spectrum from when they first acquired Hamilton.

The Rangers acquired (or re-acquired, if you prefer) the former MVP from the Los Angeles Angels on April 27. They were 7-12 at the time, and would soon be 7-15. That put them in last place in the AL West, a place they seemed destined to stay.

With that taken into account alongside Hamilton’s baggage—namely his two subpar years in Anaheim, surgery on his right shoulder and the latest in an unfortunate line of drug and alcohol relapsesthe Rangers didn’t seem to be acquiring a missing piece for a contending season. With less than $7 million of Hamilton’s $80.2 million remaining contract on their hands, what they really seemed to be acquiring was a cheap nostalgia act who would help put butts in seats at Globe Life Park in Arlington.

But now that the Rangers have apparently decided that they’re going to be good this year, maybe Hamilton can be more than that. Maybe he can actually help.

Before any of us get too excited, let’s be real and remind ourselves that the odds of Hamilton actually being a useful player for the Rangers aren’t great. Or good. Or even OK, really.

It’s been three years since Hamilton’s last really good season, after all. Following a 2012 campaign that featured 43 homers and a .930 OPS, the lefty swinger OPS’d just .741 with 31 homers in two seasons in Anaheim. Factor in very little baserunning and defensive value, and Hamilton was worth barely 3.0 wins above replacement whether you ask Baseball-Reference.com or FanGraphs.

Furthermore, we have multiple examples (Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, etc.) that prove it takes time for a hitter to fully recover from surgery on his lead shoulder. With Hamilton having turned 34 just a couple of days ago, it’ll probably be even tougher for him to make a full recovery.

These are the things you could have been skeptical of coming into Hamilton’s 2015 debut, and he added to the list throughout the day.

At no point did Hamilton come close to a hit, as the dribbler thrown into right field was the only ball he put in play. And in swinging through several secondary pitches outside the strike zone, Hamilton effectively invited pitchers to continue feeding him the insanely fastball-light diet that Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs highlighted last year. Given how well it’s worked against him, that’s…not ideal.

So as far as first impressions go, Hamilton’s wasn’t great. As much as everyone would love to see him revert to his old MVP-caliber self, he hasn’t been that guy for years and didn’t give much of an indication on Monday that he could be that guy again.

And yet, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if there wasn’t any hope. 

As easy as it is to get lost in the “0-for-3” portion of Hamilton’s afternoon, he deserves some credit for the third-inning walk he worked against Shaun Marcum. He seemed to have Hamilton in the bag after he got him to whiff on consecutive down-and-away changeups to run the count to 2-2, but Hamilton took the next two changeups for the walk. Like that, he showed his plate discipline isn’t totally kaput just yet.

Hamilton also showed that his bat hasn’t lost all its old quickness. It’s not going to show up in the box score, but he hit a hard foul ball outside of first off of a Marcum cutter in the first inning that looked like this:

Sure, it was only a foul ball. But to hit a pitch like that at all, you have to have at least some bat speed left in your tank. 

Then there are the other reasons for optimism that Hamilton can be of use to the Rangers.

The ones that have been obvious all along are that he’s returning to a team that has a much, much more hitter-friendly ballpark than the one he left behind in Anaheim and also to a place where he was mostly comfortable between 2008 and 2012.

But another that’s become even more prevalent in recent days is the reality that there’s roughly zero pressure on Hamilton to perform. With the Rangers playing such good baseball, he can slide into the mix as just another contributor rather than as a potential savior.

“I told him, go be one of 25,” said Rangers manager Jeff Banister, via August Fagerstrom of MLB.com. “Enjoy today. Compete. Give us what you got. Don’t try to give us anything more than that. He’s ready to play. He’s excited. He feels good about being back. These guys are a great group, they welcomed him back. They’ve been looking forward to that.”

This might have been Banister’s advice either way, granted, but it must have been much easier for him to give it with the Rangers riding a five-game winning streak. And Hamilton had no problem accepting it, saying, “It’s easy to enter into something new when that something new is working and going well.”

What makes these sentiments ring even truer is that it’s the Rangers offense that Hamilton is joining.

This would be the same offense that’s leading all of MLB in runs scored in the month of May with 131. This is due mainly to the piping-hot hitting of Prince Fielder, but Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo and Mitch Moreland are three more hitters with strong track records who have come alive. Add in the exciting work of young speedster Delino DeShields Jr., and you get the makings of a dangerous offense.

If it turns out that Hamilton indeed has something left to give, the Rangers offense will only become more formidable. And in an AL postseason hunt that looks as wide open as any in recent memory, simply having a formidable offense could prove to be good enough.

In all, we have our latest reminder of just how much a month’s worth of baseball can change things. Thanks to a week of hot baseball on the team’s part and a debut that wasn’t without silver linings on his part, Hamilton has gone from looking like an obvious novelty act to more like a potential role player.

It may very well be true that the Rangers only wanted Hamilton so he could help them fill seats. But the way things are going now, he could be a reason the fans filling those seats are watching winning baseball in the coming months.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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