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Rays' Hamilton is plucked by Reds

The Devil Rays have invested so much in Josh Hamilton - millions of dollars, thousands of hours, countless emotions. They've celebrated his successes, suffered his failures and, most recently, helped him regain control of his life from drugs and resume his once-promising career.

Now he's headed to the major leagues in a different uniform.

The immensely talented but extremely troubled outfielder was lost for $50,000 when the Reds acquired him in Thursday's Rule 5 draft, which requires them to keep him in the major leagues for the entire 2007 season.

"I started shaking because I was so excited," Hamilton said from North Carolina. "I can't describe it. It's a dream come true. Where I've been the last 3-4 years, then for this to happen, to know that people have confidence in me. ... I'm fortunate that somebody's got that faith in me."

The 25-year-old had been sidelined since July 2002 by injuries and multiple drug suspensions before returning last summer to play 15 games in the low minor leagues, then had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.

But the Reds were enticed by the possibility he could regain his status as one of the game's most talented all-around prospects, comforted by research that dates to manager Jerry Narron's connection with him as a teenager, and convinced he could handle the big step up in competition. They wanted him enough that they paid the Cubs an additional $50,000 to take him for them with the No. 3 pick because the Marlins and other teams were interested.

"We did our homework," Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "We felt it was well worth the gamble. There are certain obstacles, obviously, but we wouldn't have taken him if we felt he couldn't overcome them. And the upside is still there at his age."

Hamilton was available because the Rays didn't include him on their 40-man roster, figuring no team would be willing to move him to the majors given his extended absence and lack of development, and not having played above the Double-A level.

Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman admitted to being "a little surprised" that Hamilton was selected - "especially with how important it is in his development process to play with all the down time" - but said he didn't regret his decision not to protect Hamilton on a roster that includes fringe major-leaguers Damon Hollins and Jon Switzer and some less-heralded prospects.

Nor did he think it was the end of Hamilton's career with the Rays, saying there was at least "a reasonable chance" he would be back. If the Reds don't keep Hamilton in the majors - where he likely would be limited to sparse duty, such as pinch-running and late-inning defense - they have to first offer him on waivers to all other teams under the same Rule 5 parameters, then back to the Rays for $25,000. But even then his return might not be guaranteed because as a player who was outrighted off the roster, Hamilton would have the option of becoming a free agent.

"I think it's going to be difficult for him to stick all year," Friedman said. "Obviously someone that talented, it's hard to say that definitively. But with all the time he missed and coming off knee surgery, I think a part-time role, especially in the major leagues, will be tough for him initially."

The move would seem to be a tremendous break for Hamilton, who would have spent the 2007 season making a few thousand dollars a month riding the buses at the Class A level and now has the chance to make the major-league minimum $380,000 and live the major-league life.

Yet that might also be a major cause for concern. Hamilton's biggest battle has been with drugs and alcohol and - though he says he has been clean since October 2005 and passes baseball's regular tests - he has come back in something of a protective environment, with help from the Rays, friends and his wife, Katie, who often traveled with him. His time alone is limited, he is dropped off and picked up so he can't drive off to places he shouldn't go and he carries minimal cash to reduce temptation.

"This is a more delicate situation than most typical Rule 5 picks," Friedman said. "(The Reds) are very cognizant of it, and it's something they appreciate, and we are willing to help in any way we can. Obviously no one out there is not rooting for Josh. This jump, not only physically, but socially, is a big jump, and it is something that is going to have to be handled in such a way to put him in the best position to have success."

Hamilton, who said his knee felt fine, admitted he will be nervous joining a new organization, having been a Ray since receiving nearly $4-million as the top overall pick in 1999. He pledged to report to spring training in Sarasota in the best shape of his career and said he wasn't intimidated by the challenge of jumping to the majors. "Baseball," he said, "has never been the problem."

Hamilton was home in North Carolina, working out, hunting and picking up some extra Christmas cash by helping his older brother in his tree-cutting business, when he got the unexpected news. But a day earlier, it turned out, he had received a prescient text message on his cell phone.

"It said, 'Jesus never fails; send this to nine other people and you'll get good news tomorrow,' '' Hamilton said. "I really don't believe in coincidence either. So I thought that was pretty amazing."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays/.

Fast facts

No Joshing: How the Rule 5 draft applies

Because the Rays didn't put outfielder Josh Hamilton on their 40-man roster, he was eligible to be taken in the Rule 5 draft.

The Cubs paid $50,000 to the Rays and took him with the No. 3 pick, then sold him to the Reds in a prearranged deal for $100,000.

The Reds are required to keep him on their 25-man big-league roster (including limited time on the DL) for the entire 2007 season.

If they don't, they have to first put him on waivers and any claiming team would also have to keep him in the majors. If he clears waivers, the Reds have to offer him back to the Rays for $25,000.

But Hamilton, because the Rays had previously taken him off the roster, can elect to be a free agent rather than go back to the Rays.

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