It seemed a forgone conclusion that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas would leave Kansas City to riches galore as some of the most coveted free agents on this year’s market. However, we are nearly to the end of the year with both Hosmer and Moustakas still unsigned.
Why has their market been so slow going? Well it has been a poor market for all free agents in general. Just 19 of the top 50 free agents ranked by MLB Trade Rumors have signed so far, and just one of the top 11 - and that was Masahiro Tanaka, who wisely decided not to opt out of his contract. Both players have seen their most likely suitor - the Red Sox for Hosmer and the Angels for Moustakas - go in a different direction to fill their needs.
So where does that leave them? Or Lorenzo Cain for that matter? What are their options if the market continues to be dry?
Sign a one-year contract and try again next year
Typically when a free agent hits the market and doesn’t find the love and attention, and most of all, money, he expected, he typically signs a one-year deal to try again in a year. Stephen Drew, Dexter Fowler, Kendrys Morales, and Ervin Santana are some of the recent free agents who decided to just press “reset” on the free agent process, inking a one-year deal to get a multi-year deal later on. Under the new labor deal, free agents can’t be made a Qualifying Offer twice, so in a year, Hosmer and Moose could be signed with a team forfeiting absolutely no draft picks.
However, Hosmer and Moose may not want to take that gamble with a monster free agent class in 2018. They may be among the best free agents in this off-season, but in a year they’ll have to compete with Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Andrew Miller, and Charlie Blackmon. At third base alone, Mike Moustakas will have to try to get a deal with Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson getting most of the attention. Hosmer faces much less competition at first with no real starters available next year other than 36-year old Joe Mauer, but even then Hosmer may find it difficult to get teams to pony up with so many other prime free agents available at other positions.
Be very creative with the contract
One of the big obstacles for many free agents this year is that the luxury tax threshold is much more punitive under the new labor deal, and teams are doing their best to stay under it. That is why the normally free-spending Yankees and Giants have been very meticulous in managing their payroll this winter.
For teams that are cash-strapped this year, but have more financial flexibility down the road, a creatively-structured deal for Hosmer or Moose may make more sense. That could include heavily backloading the deal to make a smaller amount of money this year, so their team doesn’t go over the threshold. This would not, however, apply to teams up against the luxury tax threshold, since the average annual value applies.
Opt-outs have also become a popular incentive to offer free agents, allowing the player more control of their fate with the security of a long-term deal. Hosmer could sign a six-year deal that is perhaps a bit under market, but with the potential to opt out in two years when he is still a young, productive player and the market is more to his liking.
Just be patient
Most GMs have become wise to the truism that patience is rewarded on the market, at least for teams looking for a bargain. Waiting out the market causes prices to drop, allowing clubs to swoop in just before spring training and pay much less than expected. Last off-season, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Mark Trumbo, Greg Holland, Mike Napoli, and Jason Hammel all signed after New Year’s Day, but perhaps for lesser deals than they were anticipating at the outset of free agency.
Teams are still grappling with changes under the new labor deal that affect free agency, and it may be taking awhile for the market to correct itself. The market has also been slowed by the possibility of big time players being traded like Giancarlo Stanton and Evan Longoria, and possibly Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and Chris Archer as well. There can be a “follow the leader” mentality among GMs at times and once a big name or two in the free agent market sign, it could open the floodgates. Teams don’t want to be left sifting through the rejects in March, and may jump on the chance to sign a free agent once the market moves.
Take a much lower offer
With advanced analytics, we have a better idea of how much players are worth, and it may just be that despite Scott Boras’ puffery, Eric Hosmer is just not seen as a $150 million-type player. Teams may also be wising up that free agency is not an efficient way to build teams, usually leaving clubs with overpaid players and albatross contracts. The market is constantly adjusting based on newer information available to teams (and let’s not totally discount the possibility of the “c-word” - collusion). And the new labor deal could be squeezing the “middle class” of free agents, those that aren’t elite, but aren’t cheap either.
That may mean Hosmer and Moustakas aren’t due the big payday Boras may have sold them on. Despite his age and a career-season, Hosmer may have to take a lower deal, perhaps even under $100 million. Moose may not even get the kind of four-year $64 million deal the much older Justin Turner received a year ago. It’s a new market, a new reality. Free agents may have to adjust.
Return to the Royals?
The Royals say they are taking a “wait-and-see” approach to free agency, with their sights set primarily (exclusively?) on Hosmer. That may mean swooping in on an offer for Hosmer if the price falls enough, and keeping him here through a rebuild process as the face of the franchise and mentor to the next generation of Royals.
However with the Royals trying to cut payroll, and claims of losses of $60 million over the last two seasons, the Royals may find it very difficult to bring back Hosmer at any price. If his price drops, or if his only other suitor is a fellow small-market team like the Padres, the Royals will be put in the very difficult position with Hosmer calling their bluff. Will they bite the bullet and sign Hosmer to a below-market, but still very lucrative deal? Or do they draw the ire of an angry fanbase for letting him walk to another team - the Padres, no less - for a very reasonable, even club-friendly contract?
We should find out a lot more about the fate of the Royals free agents in the next week. Typically players like to plan where they will spend the season by the first of the year, so there is probably pressure on their agents to get a deal done. Eric Hosmer has talked a lot about “earning” the right to free agency. However, he may have earned the wrong time to be a free agent, with a confluence of events driving down what once seemed like a lucrative market. Time will only tell if he gets his big payday and where he spends the 2018 season.