The free agency market continues to be relatively cold, but there were a sudden influx of rumors last week. Of particular note to Royals fans was the rumor that the team had an offer out to Eric Hosmer for $147 million dollars over seven years, more than double the largest contract ever paid out to a Royals player. There was something of a storm on social media about this for a while, primarily debating whether Eric Hosmer could possibly live up to such a contract in terms of on-field production with Shaun concluding probably not.
What most people seemed to be forgetting is that things being what they are, it doesn’t even matter if he can.
If the Royals re-sign him to try to compete
The Royals are not going to be competitive in the foreseeable future. They lost 82 games last season and now three out of their top four position players by fWAR are free agents - Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain, along with their second- and fifth-best pitchers, Mike Minor and Jason Vargas. Then they traded their fourth-best and sixth-best pitchers - Joakim Soria and Scott Alexander, respectively.
In other words, the team needed to improve from last season and before they can even start that process they’d have to replace most of their top players. They have one guy at the minor league level - Jorge Soler - with enough production and potential to seem like he might be a guy to offer a noticeable upgrade to the roster. The problem is that he has already failed miserably at the major league level in multiple stints over the course of the past two seasons. Any other positives that come out of the Royals’ farm system will be a complete surprise, at this point.
But let’s say they did sign The Wizard of Hoz to a deal, any deal, with the expectation that he’ll help them compete. He’s projected to be worth a little less than 3 fWAR next season, a significant drop off from 2017 that is reflective of his history as a player who has never put up back to back quality seasons.
But let’s say he’s worth 10 fWAR next year - that’s peak, healthy Mike Trout levels of production - that would be a huge boost to the team, right? Most people agree that a replacement level team (i.e. one in which the combined efforts of the players would be worth 0 WAR) would manage about 48 wins. The Royals need to get to 90 wins or so to make the playoffs. Add Hosmer’s 10 wins to that and you get 58. That’s a good start, but what will the rest of the team give you?
If you add up all of Steamer’s positive WAR projections for next season - disregarding the fact that some of the players in those projections likely won’t even be on the big league roster as well as ignoring any neutral or negative WAR numbers - you get 9.6 fWAR for the offense and and 11.1 fWAR from the pitchers. Even if you generously round both of those up you get 22 fWAR. Add that to the 58 wins from before and you still only get 80 wins. If Hosmer suddenly played like Trout next year the Royals would still have to find 10 more wins on their roster, somewhere. That isn’t going to happen without the Royals throwing a lot of money at the problem and getting lucky. Since they have already dealt possibly their best remaining reliever in order to clear the salary of another quality reliever, that seems unlikely.
The other argument that has been made a lot recently is that Eric Hosmer has intangible qualities which would make him a valuable asset to a rebuilding team. Let’s set aside, for the moment, what fair market value for intangibles would be because, being intangible, there is no real way to assign such a value. Instead let’s answer the question of what exactly his intangibles might be and how they could help. According to a bit of scouring of other articles and social media posts his potential intangibles include:
- Signing him would allow the team to sell more tickets and merchandise by proving the team is loyal to its stars.
- He would be able to serve as a veteran leader for a younger team which may need such leadership.
- He could serve as a kind of culture coach and teach incoming players about the Royals as winners and the right way to play the game.
- He could make the team look better as they head into their TV deal negotiations.
But the thing about these intangibles, in such cases where they exist and have real value, is that Hosmer is far from the only one who can provide them. Several players already on the roster can provide much of this or they could sign other players who would likely cost far less.
- Merchandise sales are mostly dumped into a pool and split between the teams. Selling a Royals Eric Hosmer jersey benefits the team little more than selling a Yankees Eric Hosmer jersey.
- The sad sagas of Mike Sweeney and Alex Gordon hint at a likely future for Eric Hosmer as a ticket seller. Both players saw fan dislike rise to all time highs after taking less money to stay with the home town team. If the team or Eric were to falter after he returned - both as likely outcomes as not - then history shows the fans would quickly turn on him.
- As far as being a team leader, Eric Hosmer stands out as a man who leads to the fans, but the stories from inside the clubhouse usually cite guys like Mike Moustakas for his fiery refusal to quit, Salvador Perez for keeping everything loose, or even Peter Moylan for bringing delicious coffee to the team. Eric Hosmer was never the only leader in that clubhouse and it’s unclear how much of an impact he truly had. His role can likely be replaced by someone who is already there.
- The culture of the Royals has been pretty well established for several years now and it’s not like the entire team left, anyway. Danny Duffy, Kelvin Herrera, Salvy, and Gordon should all be able to provide this culture coaching to the new players at no additional cost to the team.
- Sam Mellinger has repeatedly pointed out that his research indicates that TV deals have far less to do with winning and far more to do with market size. Every baseball team goes through periods of being bad as well as good so it makes no sense to base a long-term deal like this on whether the team is good (or less bad) in 2019 as compared to basing it on how the market has grown or changed since the last deal was negotiated. Why should a broadcast company be more interested in a 75 win team than a 70 win team, anyway? And why shouldn’t it be more excited for a young team that seems likely to win a lot in the future due to promising prospects instead of a mediocre team committing tons of salary to aging veterans?
The negatives of signing Hosmer if they can’t compete (and they can’t)
The thing about all this is, it’s not just David Glass’ money out the window if they bring Hosmer back. For starters doing so guarantees one less draft pick in the 2018 draft; even if he signs elsewhere for less than $50 million total he’s worth a pick between the second and third rounds. These picks don’t just represent potential players, either. Every additional draft pick includes an increase in the amount the Royals are allowed to spend on their draft selections. The more money you have to spend on your draft the easier it is to convince the better prospects to sign with you.
Another great resource for rebuilding teams is offering one- or two-year deals to guys who want to prove they can still play baseball at a high level but who haven’t been particularly good, recently. These guys will usually play for a lot less and don’t tie up salary for very long if the prospects start showing off and more proven pieces need to be added to help them finish off a run. If these deals work out, though, the players can be traded at the deadline to other competitive teams for more prospects, or given a qualifying offer for more draft capital. There’s not much downside here because if the team is bad it doesn’t matter if the player was bad and they usually don’t cost much. If Eric Hosmer returns his salary and roster spot can’t be applied to reclamation projects that might otherwise return needed prospects for the team.
There are a couple scenarios in which it wouldn’t drastically hurt the team to bring Hosmer back. If he wants to sign a seven-year or longer deal for some ridiculously low salary then he might still be on the roster when the team is good again without drastically reducing their ability to rebuild. It would require him to still be good in seven years, though, which is far from a sure bet. The best scenario for his return to the Royals would likely be a one-year deal to prove to everyone else he can be good in back-to-back years and see if next year’s market is a little warmer. At that point they could treat him like one of the aforementioned reclamation projects. They would have to deal him at the deadline, though, to consider it a part of their rebuilding success because the Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibits offering him a second Qualifying Offer.
Both of those scenarios seem unlikely, however, with the Padres having already confirmed that they have some kind of multi-year deal out there, even if it’s not the $140 million for seven years that’s being reported. Dayton Moore probably isn’t going to lowball Eric like that, in any case. So the best hope for the Royals continues to be what it has been since he wasn’t traded at the deadline: that Eric Hosmer gets his coveted mega deal from someone else.