Boston signed Shane Victorino at the winter meetings, in a move that presumably locked up their outfield for 2013. However, thanks to Victorino's ability to play center field, Jacoby Ellsbury -- who has just one year remaining with the Red Sox -- could be traded, opening up right field once more. The Red Sox seem to only want to do this in a deal that brings them controllable starting pitching, but their desire to do that very thing could be increased if they're able to bring in another outfielder. Say, Josh Hamilton.
Boston's continued interest in Hamilton is no secret, but neither is their desire to bring him in on a three-year deal. There's a ton of risk in a player like Hamilton, but if he can stave off decline for a few more seasons, whoever signs him is going to be thrilled that they were able to get him on a short-term deal. That is, of course, if a short-term deal is what he ends up with. That seems to be the situation today, but as he gets closer to signing with one team, another might up the ante in the hopes of changing his mind.
Boston still has the payroll flexibility to bring Hamilton in, even at a lofty average annual value around $20-$25 million. They have about $35 million to work with before hitting the luxury tax threshold, and with Ellsbury presumably traded, that figure would jump to about $45 million in projected space. That would start to cut things close in terms of approaching the luxury tax, but unlike in the past couple of years, the Red Sox wouldn't have any long-term deals hanging over their heads -- essentially, the barrier to improve the club in the short-term would be lifted. If they do get young, cost-controlled starting pitching back for Ellsbury, then so much the better for their budget.
That's without assuming that multiple players making a few million here and there are attached to an Ellsbury trade. If the arbitration-eligible contracts of say, Alfredo Aceves and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are packaged along with Ellsbury somewhere, Boston has even more wiggle room. Those two aren't in line to make buckets of money, but they have seven-figure deals at positions where Boston already has plenty of depth -- removing extraneous pieces with price tags attached is something that's likely to happen this off-season, with or without an Ellsbury trade.
In short, Boston has the means to acquire Hamilton, they'll just have to put some other plans into motion to make room on the roster for him.
All of this is pointless curiosity unless Hamilton remains available, though. The Rangers are still interested by him, but two things could happen to quell said interest. They could be the winners in the Zack Greinke sweepstakes, and the price tag attached to that is going to mean they need to find their new outfielder elsewhere. If they acquire Justin Upton, even without Greinke, then the chances of bringing Hamilton back are slim, given the team already has Nelson Cruz, Leonys Martin, and David Murphy on the roster. Plus, given Upton's reasonable contract for the next three years, his acquisition would not impede their Greinke chase.
It's important that the Rangers acquire Upton or Greinke if Hamilton is going to have a shot at coming to Boston, as they are reportedly willing to go four years with him. Boston, and others, are all talking three-year deals, and those will not be appealing unless there is no fourth season on the table elsewhere.
The Mariners are one such club willing to go three years. Ken Rosenthal reports that Hamilton and the Mariners have discussed three-year deals for between $20-25 million per season. The Rangers will be given the chance to match any offer, but if they have already used up their payroll space for Greinke (and possibly Upton), then they won't be able to.
Boston would provide a better chance at winning, can match any money Seattle throws Hamilton's way, and also features the park more likely to make Hamilton's next contract opportunity an attractive proposition. If Texas really is out of the Hamilton game at some point, then the Red Sox should be able to beat out a Seattle contract, so long as the bidding remains at three years. The Mariners might be that team desperate enough for a big free agent -- especially a hitter with power that plays anywhere -- to go that extra fourth season, though, so it's no given that he's a future Sox, even in a market that no longer features the Rangers.
To complicate things further, the Yankees -- and reportedly without general manager Brian Cashman -- are beginning to look into Hamilton. A lucrative Hamilton deal might not actually get in the way of New York's plan to be under the 2014 luxury tax, but it would almost certainly mean that Curtis Granderson, a free agent at season's end, would be handed a qualifying offer and set adrift a year from now. With the money for Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, and Granderson no longer a concern after 2013, the Yankees could mix and match as necessary in order to stick under the $189 million figure, while also keeping Hamilton.
If the Yankees get serious about Hamilton, they're a danger to Boston's slow-paced quest for him, especially in a situation where ownership is driving this thing. To get all conspiracy theory on you, if ownership was quietly pining after Hamilton the whole time, Cashman's reported lack of authorization to make offers at the winter meetings all of a sudden makes a whole lot of scary sense.
Hamilton isn't going to sign anywhere until the Rangers figure out their situation with Greinke and Upton. Hamilton will allow them to make a counter-offer, and they'll either have to pull out of trade talks to keep him around, or pull the trigger on a deal shortly after in order for everyone else to move on with their off-season. If they do let him walk, it looks like three teams, each with their own advantages (or reasons to be crazy) will be fighting over this winter's most-talented player.