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Eric Hosmer’s free agency will be a tug-of-war between old school and new

Hosmer is often the dividing line between the purists and the analysts.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

We’re still a year away from one of the best free agent classes of all time, but the 2017-18 class includes some interesting names. Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Johnny Cueto, Justin Upton and Jonathan Lucroy are all set to hit the free market this offseason, and bidding for any one of these stars could be high. It’s not one of the more robust markets, but it still has the potential for some intrigue.

Despite these names, there’s no player other than Eric Hosmer who will create such a stir.

Hosmer has often been the dividing line between baseball “purists” and the sabermetric community. He certainly passes the eye-test of being a good slugger, yet most sabermetricians disagree that Hosmer produces lots of value.

In 2016, Hosmer hit .266 with 25 home runs and 104 RBIs. For many, that’s the definition of a good year. He kept his average above .250, hit between 20 and 30 home runs and drove in 100 RBIs. In 2010, then-Phillies slugger Jayson Werth hit .296 with 27 home runs and 106 RBI, landing himself a seven-year contract worth $126 million with the Nationals that very offseason. So, for many, it wouldn’t be crazy to see Hosmer make at least $100 million.

But, that’s the problem. Werth had been worth (pun not intended) 14.9 fWAR in the three seasons leading up to his free agency; Hosmer, on the other hand, has accumulated only 3.2 fWAR from 2014 to 2016. An example like this is exactly why many outside the core sabermetric community (and even some inside it) dislike WAR; it tells us vastly different things for seemingly comparable players.

Hosmer’s projected free agent contract has run the gamut, but most agree that he will earn more than $100 million. Last summer, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported that Hosmer could be looking for a 10-year deal worth around $200 million, but Hosmer himself has since rejected that claim.

A team will give Eric Hosmer at least $75 million, if not the $100 million he could be asking for. Is it a mistake to do this? It certainly would look like one. The teams that involve themselves in the bidding for Hosmer — and frankly, it’s too early to pinpoint any exact suitors — could very well be the same teams that still value batting average, home runs and RBIs. That would make this contract negotiation more than just a contract negotiation. It could potentially give us insight as to which teams are moving forward and which are still stuck in the early-2000s.

This scenario might seem a bit drastic, considering even most sabermetricians agree that WAR does not account for all that a player has to offer. Even when we're including Hosmer’s “clubhouse presence,” it’s hard for me to justify giving him a huge contract. Sure, he’s going to hit the market going into his age-28 season. But, Hosmer’s career high WAR remains at the 3.4 mark he set back in 2015. And even that is not an “All-Star” level talent.

Using a table created by Shaun Newkirk of Royals Review, the average win in 2017 will be worth around $8.4 million. If we wanted to sign Hosmer to a five-year contract, assuming he will produce 7.5 fWAR, he would earn around $72 million. That sounds pretty good. However, it’s also suggesting that he will produce 7.5 fWAR over the next five seasons, something he hasn’t even done over his first six (5.9), despite the fact that he should be entering his prime and not leaving it.

This makes Hosmer’s next contract so polarizing. He’s a great player on the surface, but digging into the numbers tells you a completely different story. Let’s revisit the Werth comparison. Hosmer isn’t nearly as good as he was, and it’s not just because his 2016 average was 30 points lower.

Hosmer walks a lot less than Werth. With a career 7.9 walk rate, Hosmer is right around the league average. Werth’s was up at 12.6 percent in his contract year, a rock-solid mark for a slugger.

Secondly, Hosmer’s defense is worse than Werth’s. Yes, they play different positions. But Werth played decent defense in right field, allowing his bat to carry his WAR to All-Star-type heights. For Hosmer, his Ultimate Zone Rating was an ugly -8.4 last year, and his FanGraphs’ defensive rating was at -20.4. Both marks were the worst in the league among qualified first baseman.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking, doesn’t Hosmer have three Gold Gloves?

In fact, that’s what Ned Yost said last year, too. Really, though, after a quick look at Hosmer’s defense, he’s only exceptional around the bag, making scoops on tough throws. Most sabermetricians believe that this accounts for only 25 percent of a first baseman’s total defensive contribution. Outside of his handy glove work when scooping balls, Hosmer does not have much to offer when fielding his position.

Since his bat isn’t good enough to carry the extra weight that his bad defense adds to his game, his offense must supplement. And, recently, it hasn’t done the job.

Hosmer posted just a 101 wRC+ in 2016, suggesting he was just one percent above league-average with his bat, despite the 25 homers and 104 RBI. He slugged just .433, and his .167 isolated power ranked 90th out of 146 qualified hitters. For a supposed power hitter and first baseman, those numbers are alarming, and they are the reason he was worth -0.2 fWAR.

Despite not hitting for any more power the year before, in 2015, Hosmer did manage to post a 123 wRC+ and a 3.4 fWAR, likely due to a .297 batting average and a .363 OBP. His .822 OPS was the best of his career, as was his .355 wOBA. That year, one can firmly say that Hosmer was an All-Star with the bat, but his glove was what kept him from racking up a high fWAR.

So now, we’ve entered Hosmer’s contract year. Right now, he’s slashing .295/.359/.415 with four homers, 16 RBI, a 112 wRC+ and a 0.3 fWAR. His defense and power are still bad, and it's likely they'll always be that way. But he’s going to have to start hitting — and with some sort of uptick in clout — in order to reach his career-high in fWAR and justify a huge contract.

And the Werth deal? It’s worked out pretty well, for what it’s worth (another pun!). Obviously, he made a lot of money, but he’s accumulated 14.4 fWAR in his time with Washington, as his contract is set to expire at the end of this year. Considering the age curve, it’s hard to argue that the signing has not worked out for the Nationals, or even Werth himself, for that matter.

All in all, there’s enough of the season left that Eric Hosmer still controls his own destiny. His play has significantly improved over the last several weeks, but if he continues to be the Eric Hosmer that we have always known, his free agent sweepstakes will be one of the most interesting, and perhaps divided, that we have seen in a long time.

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Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DevanFink.