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In Signing Flawed Hosmer, Padres Make a Statement About Their Future

Both Eric Hosmer and the Padres have major flaws, so why did they join forces for an eight-year $144 million deal?

In many ways, San Diego should be the easiest sell in free agency. The weather is perfect, with a very nice annual temperature of 69 degrees. Rain is an afterthought: The city sees an average of just 10–15 inches of precipitation per year (or a fourth of what Seattle gets), and for every day of rain, San Diegans get roughly nine of sun. The nightlife is plentiful and centered right outside Petco Park in the Gaslamp Quarter. There are beautiful beaches and parks. And for those who want to escape expectations, the media presence is light, and the national spotlight non-existent. When MLB players finally get their choice of where they want to sign, it’s amazing that all of them don’t have San Diego at the top of their lists.

But for as appealing as the city is, the franchise that calls it home is anything but. Apart from a few years here and there, the Padres have been the definition of irrelevant since coming into being 50 years ago, and for the last two seasons, they’ve tested the limits of just how far a team can bottom out before it ceases to be a major league enterprise. Following the implosion of general manager A.J. Preller’s manic winter spending spree after the 2014 season—when, newly in charge, he acquired Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel, only to watch his new super-team lose 88 games—San Diego settled into the NL West basement. All of those players aside from Myers are gone, as is any sense of competition, with the Padres losing 94 and 91 games the last two years. All that while, Preller has committed to a path of bargain shopping, steering entirely clear of free agency and trading away virtually anyone making anywhere north of the league minimum. San Diego might be paradise, but the Padres were no player’s idea of a destination.

There was no reason to think that was going to change any time soon, even despite the Padres having one of baseball’s best farm systems. But late Saturday night, with spring training already underway, San Diego suddenly swerved, signing free-agent first baseman Eric Hosmer, formerly of the Royals, to an eight-year contract worth $144 million. At first glance, it’s a curious move: The expenditure—the largest contract handed out in franchise history—doesn’t vault the Padres into the ranks of the NL’s best, given how many holes still litter their roster, and Hosmer is perhaps this winter’s most polarizing player. So why has San Diego broken its long offseason slumber, especially with the team nowhere near contention, to lavish record money on Hosmer?

It helps that, to a certain degree, Hosmer is a bargain. Plenty of people will look at a $144 million guarantee and laugh at the idea of that much money being anything but a wild overpay. But by frontloading money and giving Hosmer an opt-out after the 2022 season, the Padres have made the numbers work in their favor. In the first five years of his deal, Hosmer will be paid $21 million annually; the last three are worth roughly $13 million a piece. In other words, the Padres have Hosmer first on a five-year, $106 million contract—a pact that neither breaks the bank nor is particularly risky or crazy. Then, he either leaves or accepts a three-year, $39 million deal to stay—again, not a financial outlay that will bankrupt a Padres team with barely any long-term commitments on the books.

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Hosmer’s youth is another point in the Padres’ favor. This isn’t your typical big free-agent contract, handed out to a player on the wrong side of 30; Hosmer is just 28 years old and won’t turn 29 until late October. He’ll be 33 when he reaches his opt-out, and even if he chooses not to take it, a first baseman in his mid-30s making $13 million a year is neither extravagant nor deleterious to a team’s hopes.

Nor have the Padres bought themselves a lemon. The third pick of the 2008 draft, Hosmer put together his best offensive season in 2017, setting career highs in all three slash stats and OPS+ (132) and tying his personal best in home runs with 25. Defensively, he has the stamp of approval from the rest of the league, as he took home his fourth Gold Glove last year. He’s durable, having played fewer than 152 games in a season just once since his rookie year in 2011. And as far as off-the-field stuff goes, he brings the entire complement: Throw a dart at the intangibles board, and you’re guaranteed to hit a quality that Hosmer has in spades (“leader,” “gritty,” “hard-working,” “plays the game the right way,” “championship attitude,” and plenty of other accolades that Derek Jeter trademarked 20 years ago).

But for as brilliant a player as Hosmer looks, it’s hard not to feel disappointed with what he’s produced. Despite all those career highs, he put up just 4.0 WAR last year—a fine number, but nowhere near elite first basemen like Joey Votto (7.5) or Paul Goldschmidt (5.8). As for his defense, the advanced numbers spit on Hosmer’s Gold Glove collection: He’s sharply in the negative by Defensive Runs Saved (-20 over 8,950 1/3 innings) and not much better by UZR (-29 overall, -4.1 per 150 games). Always take fielding stats with a pillar of salt, and it’s worth noting that Hosmer’s best attribute—scooping throws—isn’t reflected in them. But those figures don’t suggest a peerless defender at the position.

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The underlying offensive stats are worrisome too. While the rest of the game has embraced putting the ball in the air, Hosmer continues to pound the ball into the dirt. His 55.6% ground-ball rate last year was fourth highest among all qualified hitters, and his 22.2% fly-ball rate was third lowest. That’s fine if you’re a slap-hitting speedster like Dee Gordon, but Hosmer is supposed to be a slugging first baseman. And while Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium is a homer-suppressing park, spacious Petco is even worse; don’t expect a power renaissance there.

Then there’s the matter of the team around him. You don’t lose 91 games by accident: The Padres, as currently constructed, aren’t built to win now. San Diego was dead last in runs in 2017 with just 604 scored—nearly 300 fewer than league-leading Houston—and second-to-last in OPS+ with 84; the team, as a whole, was the offensive equivalent of Freddy Galvis (whom the Padres acquired back in December to fill a shortstop hole that’s existed for roughly forever). Despite being in a pitcher’s park, San Diego had a 4.67 ERA, fifth-worst in the NL, and an 88 ERA+. Clayton Richard, a 34-year-old lefty who posted a 4.79 ERA and 86 ERA+ last season, will likely get the Opening Day nod, and the only thing sadder than the fact that he’s far and away the best choice for that honor is that this will be the second straight year he draws that assignment. The bullpen is such an anonymous collection of disposable arms that I will mail you $20 if you can name even three Padres relievers off the top of your head. By design, there is precious little major league talent to work with.

You can argue until the moon crumbles into dust what Hosmer’s true value is, but it’s clear that, despite his youth and production, he isn’t a piece you build your franchise around; he’s a player who puts a good team over the top. But the Padres are nowhere near a good team in 2018 despite the depth of their farm system. Plus, Hosmer’s arrival will take San Diego’s lone star player before him—Myers—and force him off of first base and into the outfield, where his lethargic defense will likely cancel out whatever value he produces with his bat. It’s an especially flummoxing move, too, when you consider that there were cheaper options on the market, like Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda, who were good bets to produce 90% of Hosmer’s stats at 25% of the price and contract length.

So why throw close to $150 million at a good but flawed player to help you go from 71 wins to 75? Assuming the Padres don’t actually think this team is secretly a contender or aren’t planning on poisoning the rest of the NL West, consider Hosmer to be the 2018 edition of Jayson Werth. As you may recall, Werth was the first big free-agent catch in Nationals franchise history when he signed a seven-year, $126 million deal after the 2010 season. Werth, then 31, was coming off a phenomenal campaign with the Phillies; the Nationals had just wrapped up a 93-loss season, their fifth straight year below .500. It was an odd move at the time, and given how poorly Werth played in D.C. thanks to injuries and aging, it’s easy to look at it as an expensive mistake on the part of an overeager front office.

Yet Werth’s addition was more than just the impact he could have on the field. It was, if nothing else, a statement on the part of the Nationals—the first sign that a laughingstock franchise was serious about clawing its way out of the muck. Werth wasn’t fully responsible for Washington’s subsequent turnaround; more of that is owed to Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, among others. But his signing was about legitimacy and luring in other free agents, and as it turned out, he became an important veteran voice in a young clubhouse, particularly for Harper, with the two becoming fast friends.

Is that what the Padres have in mind for Hosmer? It makes sense if so. A productive young core is closer than you think in San Diego: Beyond Myers, there’s centerfielder Manuel Margot (23), rightfielder Hunter Renfroe (26), starter Dinelson Lamet (25), and catcher Austin Hedges (25). Down on the farm, meanwhile, you have top-10 prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. (19) and Luis Urias (20) as the middle infield of the future, plus promising pitchers Cal Quantrill (22), Michel Baez (22), and 2017 first-round pick MacKenzie Gore (19).

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Hosmer, with his World Series experience and as a veteran of Kansas City’s youth movement, will be asked to shepherd that group into the majors, and he’s young enough that he won’t be a creaky bag of bones by the time they reach San Diego. He isn’t so much a play for 2018, then, as he is for 2019 and beyond. And for as expensive as he is, San Diego’s laughably low payroll (just $70.6 million for 2018 before his deal is added and topping out at $118.5 million in ’22) can accommodate him and future moves easily.

It’s not exactly fair to suggest that the Padres have given Hosmer nine figures to be a babysitter, and that’s not entirely the case anyway. But his contract is easier to understand if you look at him as the harbinger of a better tomorrow in San Diego then as some crackpot get-rich-quick scheme on the part of Preller, who’s already seen that particular plan blow up in his face. There’s still plenty of risk here, and his addition would make more sense if San Diego were closer to contention. But by taking advantage of a depressed market, the Padres have landed what they likely hope is the first piece of a winner that we can only see the vague outline of right now. If nothing else, at least, Hosmer adds one more point in San Diego’s recruiting favor. Come here, he says; we may stink, but we won’t forever, and besides, you’ll never have to sit through another rain delay again.