Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Big Payday, Challenge For Hosmer, Padres

By Jeff Kallman

Once in awhile, there comes a move which proves a field day for analysts and a choice between a potential platinum mine and a potential dust bowl for the parties involved. The Padres are gambling that there's a platinum mine in signing free agent first baseman and now-former Royals mainstay Eric Hosmer.

But there's a chance it may prove a dust bowl, or at least a sunken yacht on San Diego Bay. If Hosmer thought playing in Kauffmann Stadium as his home park was a challenge, even as a guy who uses all fields and couldn't care less about lift and altitude, a comparative rarity in today's baseball, wait, still, until he gets a full taste of Petco Park. Even for such hitters as him, Petco makes Kauffmann resemble Wrigley Field.

The somnambulant offseason free agency market has yielded to a gradually moving one as spring training takes hold. And a player worth 14.1 wins above a replacement-level player in his seven seasons thus far, which averages to 2.01 WAR a season, is now worth $144 million over eight years to come, assuming Hosmer doesn't opt out of his shiny new Padres deal after the fifth year.

You could say Hosmer — the first Scott Boras client to sign a new deal in this year's market — played himself into a big payday in a bad market for first basemen with his gaudy-looking walk year last season: his .318/.385/.498 slash line looks better than respectable. Inside the slash line were 25 home runs (tied for his previous seasonal best), 94 runs batted in (ten fewer than his best such season), and a total of 30 percent of his 192 hits last year going for extra bases.

It was enough to earn Hosmer a Silver Slugger for 2017 at first base. He was also in the top ten in the American League for runs created (seventh) and on-base percentage (fourth). And he's also known as a heady, intelligent player on the bases who knows how to take advantage of the merest openings. His performance in the ninth inning in Game Five of the 2015 World Series put that on display for a nation to observe.

After Hosmer doubled home Lorenzo Cain (walk) to send Matt Harvey out after the Mets right-hander persuaded manager Terry Collins to let him try finishing what he started with a 2-0 shutout entering the frame, Series MVP Salvador Perez bounced one to David Wright at third. With Hosmer taking off on the throw, Wright threw Perez out at first, where then-Mets first baseman Lucas Duda had a clean throw home and a dead duck coming down the line.

Except that Duda threw home wide and wild and the diving Hosmer crossed the plate unmolested. Tying the game and sending it to extra innings, where the rest of the Mets bullpen was out of fuel enough to let the Royals take a Series the Mets' porous defense handed them on a plate.

Hosmer's 2016 looks better in the stats than it really was; he faltered considerably after the All-Star Break and ended up worth only 1.0 WAR for the year. He was worth 4.0 WAR in 2017, which could prove to have been either his breakout season or a kind of fluke season. And he might have knocked on the door of five WAR but for one little problem.

He's not going to get much beyond that, if at all, for the rest of his career, according to several known analyses. And he's going to play in another home park that is known to be a pitcher-friendly park where solid defensive teams can make short work of men who use the ground or hit typical line drives at the plate. There are few more vivid character challenges for a player who's known to be a solid character man, even if he's a ground ball and line drive machine whose natural power still brings between 20 and 25 home runs a year.

Hosmer earned a fourth Gold Glove, which ESPN's Bradford Doolittle points out, appropriately, is comparable to Derek Jeter in terms of the divide between his real defensive value and his perceived performance. He isn't anywhere near a top defensive first baseman, despite his ability to make flashy plays now and then. He was worth -1.6 defensive WAR in 2017; he's been worth -8.0 dWAR for his career.

At age 28, Hosmer just landed the largest contract in Padres history. They haven't played in waters this deep before. They think they're buying something beyond Hosmer's actual performance. He has a reputation for having been the heart of the Royals' clubhouse through and past their climb to the 2015 World Series championship. The Padres are gambling that he'll be likewise in their clubhouse.

"Are intangibles worth at least $105 million, or possibly $144 million? Of course not," Doolittle observes.

"But there are plenty of reasons to believe — call it hope — that this deal will work out for the Padres, as the likes of Luis Urias and Fernando Tatis Jr. and Cal Quantrill and MacKenzie Gore make their way to Petco Park over the next few years. They will join a clubhouse in which Hosmer sets the tone, and as a former champion, he'll command the respect that such veterans always do in big league clubhouses. Maybe you don't value that; the Royals clearly did, and the Padres clearly do."

The rebuilding Padres can go one of two ways with the Hosmer deal, as Doolittle says: They could look back on this as the day their rebuild turned the corner toward the Promised Land; or, they could look back on this as the day the rebuild hit a wall hard enough to make recovery a protracted period.

The deal is front-loaded enough that Hosmer gets the bulk of his money in the first five years of the deal (annual salaries around $20 million, plus a $5 million signing bonus), which may also make it tempting for him to exercise the opt-out clause after five if he does well. (The annual salaries in the final three years: about $10.3 million.) He can opt out, basically, in the first full offseason under a new collective bargaining agreement.

But whether Hosmer proves to have begun something big with his 2017 or to have played over his head last year remains the question. The metrics say that's a very good question without a simple answer. What the intangibles (actual or alleged) have to say about it is yet to be known, and less simple.

What does the Hosmer deal with San Diego say about the Royals? It probably says they hit the rebuild button and push it all the way down, now that they've lost both Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain (to the Brewers) in free agency. Their farm system needs replenishment badly.

And with third baseman Mike Moustakas likely to find a new home in free agency, too, the Royals will have lost three of their championship core with no return. Think about that. The Marlins (with Jeter himself running the show) made half the baseball world unsure whether to laugh, cry, or declare war, but they got some better than decent talent in return for trading their big guys.

The good news for the Royals: Losing Hosmer in free agency got them a high draft pick under the compensation rule. They can start their rebuild in earnest. It's not like they haven't been there before. And maybe, once again, their path back to the World Series won't be as difficult as feared the last time around. They got to back-to-back World Series and won the second one quickly enough, considering. It might be nice to have recent history on their side for a change.

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