If the San Diego Padres sign free agent Eric Hosmer, his role may be equal parts first baseman and wise old sage. San Diego’s next wave of talent would look to him for examples about work ethic, connecting with fans, and hair care (probably). While the money may make sense and San Diego is a wonderful city, one factor to consider is that being that veteran leader might actually suck.
Years ago, I met a minor league outfielder playing in Triple-A for a perennially successful organization. He was in his mid-twenties, and had the cockiness of a guy who thought for sure he would go on to play with MLB winners. He was not a prospect, but I remembered him because while I was shooting from the visitors' dugout he said some gross thing to me about borrowing my camera and taking photos for his “private collection.” I hope this goes without saying, but I did not take him up on his offer.
A year or two later, he had been traded and came back through Omaha with a different team. This time, he did not act like the same person at all. On the plus side, this meant no more gross commentary while I was just trying to do my job. But he looked bummed out. The confidence had been replaced with moping. He came to my end of the dugout and struck up some small talk. I asked if he remembered what he said to me the previous season. He had not, but conceded it sounded like something he would have done. And then, to his credit, he apologized.
The game was slow-moving, due to pitching changes or something, but we found ourselves with a bit of time to chat. He told me how proud he had been to come up with a club that was always expected to make the MLB playoffs, and how it got into his head that he was practically one of them, even with just a few weeks in the Majors, ever. The team that acquired him wanted him for a different role: to be a veteran at Triple-A for a bunch of super-young prospects on their way up, all of whom were going to leapfrog him.
“Going from a winning club to a rebuilding club sucks for a veteran,” he told me. He said he now knew he had no shot of making it out of Triple-A, and he had already started watching young kids make it up ahead of him. Sure enough, the cup of coffee he had with his original team was the only MLB playing time he ever got. The rebuilding club, as they knew all along, never needed him.
This conversation has stuck with me for quite a few years now. A lot has happened since then; the Royals went through the last stages of their own rebuild and won two pennants and a World Series.
Now Eric Hosmer is likely to end up anchoring a different phase of somebody's rebuild – the likeliest candidates seem to be the Royals: Part Deux, or the Padres, who need a veteran with strong leadership skills. Either way, Hosmer will hit or pass by the twilight of his career while young kids (ideally, anyway) succeed around him. Maybe it will not suck for him the way it did for my Triple-A “friend,” but it will certainly be a different tone than his entire career was on the way up.
Before the Quad-A outfielder let me in on his feelings, I would not have considered how moving on from winners – in Hosmer's case, winners he anchored from the low minors to the World Series – to being a veteran presence for someone else's future winning, might feel crappy. But it may be one thing that is holding up Hosmer’s decision this winter.