The Eric Hosmer saga has dragged on for what seems like years (it was over 20 months ago Jon Heyman first floated that $200 million figure). The Royals will open the regular season against the White Sox in just 44 days, and someone will need to stand at first base with a mitt, whether it is Hosmer or someone else.
Last week I took a look at alternatives at first base should Hosmer fail to come back to Kansas City. The most popular option to Royals fans is free agent Logan Morrison. Morrison is easily the best first baseman on the free agent market after Hosmer. The left-handed slugger had a career year with the Rays last year, slamming 38 home runs while hitting .246/.353/.516. His 130 wRC+ was fifth among all American League first basemen last year, and he was a 3.3 WAR player, according to Fangraphs. The 30-year old Morrison would come at a fraction of the price that Hosmer would, and the Kansas City native has already said that signing with the Royals would be a “dream come true.”
Morrison has a colorful personality and it would be great to bring a local boy home, but in a pure baseball sense, signing Morrison makes little sense for the Royals. First of all, he is coming off a career year, which raises some red flags. Ideally, you want to pay for what will happen, not what has already happened. In the three seasons before last year, Morrison was a .240/.311/.403 hitter, numbers comparable to Mark Reynolds. He was below replacement level in 2015 and barely over replacement level in 2016. His track record is not something you want to invest in.
Although Morrison would come at a much lower price tag than Hosmer, he is still looking for a two- or three-year deal, likely worth $10-14 million per season. He reportedly turned down a two-year, $20 million offer from the Indians (although his agent denied that was ever offered). As the off-season moves into spring training, perhaps that price drops as he looks for a landing spot. And hey, it’s not my money. But the Royals do have a finite amount of resources available for player payroll, and that pool has been shrinking this year. The Royals have been looking for ways to cut costs after putting up a franchise-record $145 million payroll last year, and have gotten payroll down to about $108 million.
It is true the Royals can no longer allocate money saved on player payroll to development resources like the amateur draft and international signings, since those are now capped. However, in a rebuild, the Royals could theoretically use player payroll to essentially purchase prospects from other clubs. With a more punitive luxury tax threshold, high-spending teams like the Yankees and Red Sox will be eager to move bad contracts like Jacoby Ellsbury or Hanley Ramirez, potentially offering prospects in order to get a team to pay the freight. It is a strategy that has been used before - the best example is when the Braves agreed to take on the rest of Bronson Arroyo’s contract from the Diamondbacks if they also got to acquire pitching prospect Touki Toussant.
Signing Morrison makes it impossible to use that strategy under the payroll constraints set by ownership. In fact, the club may be more motivated to move other salaries to make room for him. This can hurt a rebuild as well - the Royals arguably took a less valuable return for Scott Alexander in order to move the salary of Joakim Soria.
And what is the upside in bringing Morrison in? The 2018 season will be a rebuilding season, almost certainly a terrible season in the standings. Even 2019 does not look great unless things turn around in a hurry. Morrison simply helps you win 74 games instead of 72. Bringing him in is like bringing in Mark Grudzielanek back in 2006 - terrific player, but having him on the roster does not change the fact that the ballclub is going to lose a lot of games.
Dayton Moore has argued that winning has value, and there may be some truth to that. But the Houston Astros lost 100 games or more in each of Jose Altuve’s first three seasons. Anthony Rizzo lost 89 games or more in each of his first three seasons in Chicago. Even Eric Hosmer lost 90 games or more in his first two seasons in Kansas City. That is what happens in a rebuild - you lose a lot of games. But you get better because of good young players you develop, not because of players like Logan Morrison.
Could you use Logan Morrison as a tradeable asset? Perhaps. But the market is showing that players with his skillset have less and less value. A very similar player was traded last summer - Lucas Duda - for a AA reliever. Morrison will be an expensive player on the wrong side of 30 whose best skill is perhaps the most watered-down skill in baseball right now. If you really want a tradeable asset with value at first base, find someone cost-controlled. Years of cheap control are the new currency of baseball.
The Royals will need someone to play first base for them this year. But if the club is really rebuilding, they should think young. Go with Hunter Dozier, or if you think he is wasted there, go with Cheslor Cuthbert. Or Ryan O’Hearn. Or Frank Schwindel. Or find someone cheap and young that is available - Tommy Joseph doesn’t have a role in Philadelphia, maybe he puts up a Logan Morrison-type year.
I don’t know if I agree with the strategy of pursuing Eric Hosmer on a seven-year deal, but I understand the logic for keeping him even through a rebuild - the team would theoretically be good again while Hosmer is still youngish and good and under contract. But I do not understand the logic of signing Logan Morrison.