Padres' $144M Eric Hosmer Risk Backfiring, Giving Credibility to MLB Tanking

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistApril 24, 2018

SAN DIEGO, CA - APRIL 4:  Eric Hosmer #30 of the San Diego Padres walks back to the dugout after striking out during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Colorado Rockies at PETCO Park on April 4, 2018 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Denis Poroy/Getty Images

The 2017-18 MLB offseason was defined by teams not spending. Stars were stranded in limbo. Impact players twiddled their thumbs.

In the end, every worthy free agent found a home, but many settled for far less ducats than they expected. 

Such is life in the era of tanking. Save your bucks, be terrible for a while, stockpile draft picks, clear payroll and win later—that's the formula. It worked for the 2016 world champion Chicago Cubs and the 2017 world champion Houston Astros.

This winter, the San Diego Padres were on the tanking trajectory. They lost 91 games in 2017 and 94 the prior year. They haven't poked their heads above .500 since 2010 and haven't made the postseason since 2006.

Time to tank, right? Or, at least, time to eschew any significant free-agent investments. 

You'd think so, but the Pads flipped the script by signing first baseman Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million pact, the largest in franchise history. They were rebuilding, but they were also willing to shell out.

So far, the decision is backfiring in potentially seismic fashion.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Granted, we're in small-sample territory. Yet, through 21 games with the Friars, Hosmer is hitting .241 with four RBI and 26 strikeouts. Over the past week, he's hitting .143 with nine whiffs in 21 at-bats. His 28.1 hard-contact percentage is below his career rate of 32.5 percent. 

There's time for Hosmer to turn it around. He's 28 years old and was an All-Star as recently as 2016. There are big-picture red flags, however.

Hosmer raked in 2017. He posted career highs in average (.318), hits (192) and OPS (.882), and tied a career high with 25 home runs in his contract year with the Kansas City Royals.

In his '16 All-Star season, Hosmer struck out a career-high 132 times. Prior to that, he'd never hit as many as 20 home runs in five full big league campaigns. When the Royals won the American League pennant in 2014, he cleared the fences only nine times. 

Now, he plays his home games at Petco Park, which was the second-least-friendly home run yard in the game in 2017, according to ESPN's Park Factors statistic

What about his defense? Despite up and down offensive results, Hosmer has garnered four Gold Gloves for his work at first base. Surely that's worth something.

Not as much as you might think.

Hardware aside, Hosmer owns an unsightly minus-21 defensive runs saved at first base and a minus-23.8 ultimate zone rating.

Adjust upward based on the eyeball test if you wish; even then it's not enough to excuse a ho-hum stick at a premium power position. 

Hosmer is reportedly a great clubhouse leader. Intangibles matter. 

"What does he mean to a franchise? Well, he means a lot," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said in September, per 610 Sports. "I don't know if you can measure that."

Fair enough. You can measure your payroll, however, and the stats of the players you're paying. The Pads will pay Hosmer $21 million in 2018 and the same amount every season through 2022. After that, he can opt out or collect another $39 million through 2025.

For clubs in the game's lower tier, he's less an incentive to splurge and more a cautionary tale.

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

Entering play Monday, San Diego is 8-15, buried in last place in the National League West. They're at least a year or two away from sniffing October. By the time they're relevant, Hosmer may have completely crested the hill. Even if he were hitting the cover off the ball, he'd be a dubious investment. 

Given his early tribulations, he's closer to a toxic asset.

MLB is wrestling with an early attendance decline. Part of it may be due to inclement weather and a need to shorten the season.  

However, as Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan noted, "Inside front offices all spring, officials wondered whether the significant number of teams that neither spent in free agency nor harbored realistic notions of contention would have a tangible, negative effect on fans attending games."

Hosmer's San Diego struggles aren't doing anything for the go-sign-'em counterargument. If he keeps going like this, he'll be the guy general managers and owners point to when they further tighten the purse strings. 

Such is the risk with costly free agents.

Such is life in the era of tanking.

      

All statistics and contract information current as of Monday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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