The Padres have reportedly signed Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million deal. The deal includes an opt-out after the fifth year, and it is front loaded up to that point. Hosmer will make $21 million a year through the first five years, and then $13 million through the last three if he chooses to stay.
Those of you reading this are probably well aware of the fact that former FanGraphs Managing Editor Dave Cameron now works for the Padres. You are also probably aware that Cameron placed Hosmer at the top of his list of 2018 free-agent landmines. It was an assessment I fully agreed with. I am not sure I would have given Hosmer half of what he is now guaranteed, and this is coming from somebody who thought Yu Darvish got a raw deal. On the bright side, I am sure the players’ union is thrilled with this contract.
The problem is that there is an awful lot of risk attached to Hosmer. Yes, he is coming off the best season of his career, a year where he hit .318/.385/.498. However, that was inflated by a .351 BABIP that came while also having his lowest hard-hit rate since his rookie season. There is also the question of why a team would want to sign a first baseman to such a deal who has a career groundball rate of 53.4 percent. While that likely contributes to his career .316 BABIP, it also contributes to his unremarkable career .155 ISO.
Hosmer has no track record of hitting like he did in 2017. He has the odd habit of hitting well in odd-numbered years and poorly in even-numbered years. One of the points in Hosmer’s favor is that he is fast for a first baseman, but even his baserunning has shown the same kind of volatility.
PECOTA gives Hosmer no greater than a 10 percent chance to repeat his 2017 offensive performance. His 50 percent regression point, which is what all projection systems give, is still pretty good.
Hosmer’s 2018 Projections
But given Hosmer’s volatile track record, I bet that the error bars on those projections are larger than most.
Dan Szymborski tweeted out his ZiPS projections for Hosmer’s entire deal. It looks like he will be fairly paid for the first three years of the deal, but then things go south. This also ignores the fact that the Padres will almost certainly be uncompetitive in 2018, and unless a lot of things break right with their excellent farm system, they will probably be uncompetitive in 2019 and maybe 2020 too. There is a good chance that the Padres end up wishing that they had waited a year or two and spent their money elsewhere.
Then there is the controversial issue of Hosmer’s defense. He has a reputation of being a good defender, but he has a career -21 DRS and -29 UZR. Say what you will about defensive metrics, but they are far more reliable in large sample sizes. What frequently gets overlooked is Baseball Prospectus’s defensive metric, Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA). He actually has a career +18.4 FRAA, though the metric has rated him as below average since 2016. For what it’s worth, my not-scouting eye thinks he is an average defender. Claiming that he is a plus defender or better is a very difficult argument to make.
Hosmer gets a lot of credit for his elite skills at scooping up low throws. The receiving requirements of playing first base are an aspect of the position that the advanced metrics do not really capture well. While it is completely fair and reasonable to credit Hosmer with those skills, the thing is that it really is not much of an advantage. There are no regular first basemen who are “bad” at scooping balls out of the dirt. Over a full season, Hosmer’s skills in this regard are likely not worth more than a couple of runs.
One thing that Hosmer had going for him in this offseason is his age. At 28 years old, he is a relatively young free agent, thanks to having been called up as a hot prospect at age 21. He is durable as well, having played in at least 152 games in five of the last six years. He also has excellent contact rates, with a career strikeout rate of only 16.3 percent.
Hosmer has a reputation for having “intangibles.” I am not going to go as far as some in the analytical community and say that something can’t be real if it can’t be quantified. What I will say is that the term “intangibles” is lazy, vague, and frequently used to prop up lesser players because it requires no evidence. Let’s make an attempt to be a little more specific as to what that term means for Hosmer: he is seen as a leader and a great teammate.
A month ago, ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote an article about how front offices don’t want to pay for leadership anymore. It is not that they do not believe there is value in a clubhouse leader. The problem is that psychology is incredibly complicated, far more than those who value subjective intangibles over hard facts like to believe. We can make reasonable assumptions as to how a player will perform in the future, even one with a track record as variable as Hosmer’s. What can’t be done is how Hosmer’s leadership skills will translate to a new set of 24 other players.
GM A.J. Preller is clearly a believer that Hosmer’s clubhouse skills will add wins to the team, otherwise I have no idea how he can defend this contract based solely on Hosmer’s baseball skills. To be fair, the Padres know their players best, and it is reasonable to believe that Hosmer will be able to effectively mentor this young, up and coming team. However, the team is gambling a lot of money on that assumption. Furthermore, there is substantial risk that Hosmer turns into a free agent bust. As alluded to in Olney’s article, If he becomes an overpaid player who does not produce, it is doubtful that players will continue to listen to him.
With respect to the opt out, the Padres are clearly hoping that he takes it by front loading the deal. He will be a 33-year-old first baseman and likely coming off a couple of sub-par seasons. On the other hand, a three-year $39 million deal might be easy to beat in five years. The Padres are likely viewing the worst case scenario of paying $13 million a year to a below-average player as not being such a bad thing in five years. They might be right, too. They might even see it as easy to cut him outright at that price if he falls to replacement level. How this contract plays out might depend heavily on that opt-out.
From the outside looking in, it appears that Preller is becoming impatient, and as a result is trying to push up the Padres’ competitive window. In a division with Paul Goldschmidt, Cody Bellinger, and Brandon Belt, the Padres certainly can’t afford to not shore up first base, even if that means pushing Wil Myers to the outfield. (A position that he might not be suited for anymore, by the way.) But there is a whole lot of risk that this contract looks ugly by year four.
Despite all the time I have spent outlining the many problems with this deal, it is by no means “terrible” or a “disaster.” This is not the Ryan Howard deal. The contract will probably work out just fine for the first three years. It is just that there are too many problems to overlook. The window where the Padres are competitive and Hosmer is a 2-3 WAR player is likely pretty small, and it is even possible those windows do not end up overlapping at all. It is entirely possible that the Padres will not be competitive until 2021. Furthermore, he is being paid like he can reliably reproduce his 2017 season while adding wins via his leadership skills, but there is little hard evidence to support that. It is just such an odd fit for the Padres.
This might be some of Scott Boras’s best work. He got an uncompetitive team to significantly overpay for a free agent first baseman when their only competition was one other uncompetitive team, the Royals.
Preller has made many good decisions in his rebuild of this Padres team. The logic behind this signing looks out of place with that track record.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.