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The Padres rescued the Royals from making a gigantic mistake

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The Royals could have been on the hook for a lot of dead money.

San Francisco Giants v San Diego Padres
Eric Hosmer #30 of the San Diego Padres reacts to striking out during the fourth inning of a game against the San Francisco Giants at PETCO Park on April 12, 2018 in San Diego, California.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

General managers and front offices are judged on results.

What players did they sign? Did their trade pan out the way they wanted? Yeah, the team ahead of them drafted the guy they really wanted, but how did their actual selection work out? It’s obvious that these decisions aren’t made in a vacuum and have external factors that influence them, but that’s just part of baseball. You are evaluated on your results because it is a results-driven league.

However, this does not tell the whole story. General managers and front offices are judged on results, yes, but they should equally be judged on processes. While results are at the mercy of common variance and simple luck, processes are repeatable and show how an organization thinks and is a predictor of what actions they will take.

And that is why the Kansas City Royals’ pursuit of Eric Hosmer is so unnerving. Hosmer was one of the premier free agents, coming off a season in which he produced 4.1 Wins Above Replacement (per Fangraphs) and a three-year stretch that saw him produce 7.8 WAR while hitting well-above-average. The San Diego Padres ultimately inked Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million contract.

At the midpoint of the 2018 season, three things regarding this are true. One, that the Royals are a historically terrible baseball team. Two, that Hosmer is turning in the second-worst season of his professional career. And three, that the Padres rescued the Royals from a gigantic mistake but did not rescue the Royals from an awful process.

Everything this year stems from the fact that the Royals are bad enough that writers, yours truly included, are wearing out the thesaurus to find new negative descriptions of that badness. By record, they are the second-worst team in baseball behind only the train wreck of the Baltimore Orioles, who have a distinct advantage in the race to the bottom by playing in the best division in baseball. By run differential, Kansas City is absolutely the worst team in the league, especially considering the particular ineptitude of all non-Cleveland American League Central teams.

Importantly, the Royals will continue to be bad moving forward. We are at the beginning of a multi-year rebuild that, in many ways, began the year in worse shape than the team occupied in 2006. It’s fair to say that Kansas City probably won’t be competitive at all in 2019 or 2020. Kansas City could see competitiveness in 2021, but contention won’t be here until 2022, when the Royals current crop of low-minors talent and the 2018/2019 draft classes will have debuted. And that’s if it goes to plan, which, you know.

It is therefore self-evident that pursuing a player that costs northwards of $100 million (and, indeed, ended up costing $144 million) during this time is a misuse of resources under the best of circumstances. Aging players decline in usefulness, and by 2022 Hosmer will be in his age-32 season. If that doesn’t sound that bad, remember that Alex Gordon re-signed in his age-32 season and consider what Hosmer would look like in severe decline.

Make no mistake, too. Kansas City was intent on acquiring Hosmer:

All winter long, Moore had pursued Eric Hosmer, the free-agent first baseman and charismatic face of the Royals. All winter long, Moore, the general manager, had navigated the discussions and negotiations and silences of a high-stakes free agency.

The Royals believed that Hosmer, 28, was worth the largest free-agent offer in club history, a long-term contract that would torpedo the team’s previous expenditures. They believed in his talent, his intangibles, his work ethic and his connection to a city’s baseball revival.

That certainly sounds serious. But that description was from the pen of Rustin Dodd, and you’d be forgiven for wanting more concrete evidence or quotes about the pursuit. Thankfully, both exist.

The Royals, in Moore’s words, offered Hosmer “certainly the highest offer we’ve ever made.” It was, at one point, believed to be in the neighborhood of $140 million — though club officials declined to divulge the final number. It was competitive, depending on your definition of the word, though Moore acknowledged that the Padres’ final package was better.

Furthermore, the Royals were intent on even more unforced errors. They did not want to include an opt out, but wanted to counter that in another way:

Instead, the Royals wished to back-load their spending. Any Hosmer contract in Kansas City would have likely included smaller yearly salaries in 2018 and 2019 before a new local television contract kicks in.

This would have been an unmitigated disaster. Instead of getting creative and loading salary in years in which the team would be noncompetitive, the Royals wanted to push that salary back, which would impact the years in which they were looking to compete. Imagine tying up, oh, $25 million a year of your payroll on an offensively and defensively declining mid-30s first basemen when your organization is trying to field a competitive team.

And, of course, there is the fact that Hosmer himself is already sort of a pumpkin. He is currently hitting .249/.317/.397, and by wRC+ that means he is hitting 5% below league average. Hosmer is a streaky hitter and nobody would be surprised if he hit the cover off the ball for a few months to dig himself out of this hole, but half a season is not insignificant.

Hosmer’s biggest problem, which has existed for his entire career, is that he hits way too many ground balls. And in 2018, Hosmer is doubling down, intentionally or not, on this aspect of his offense. Dan Szymborski at Fangraphs wrote it best recently:

The 2018 version of Eric Hosmer has been Willie Mays Hayes without the speed. (I will not explain that reference, you should know that one!) If Hayes’s motto was “hit like Mays, run like Hayes,” then Hosmer’s right now may be “hit like Dee Gordon, run like Commissioner Gordon.”

Hosmer is a slower player and needs to hit in the air to take advantage of his strength. But it seems that Hosmer isn’t at all interested in changing his swing plane. Why would he? He got his giant contract and has a career filled to the brim with impressive achievements. As he explained to Travis Sawchik back in March (emphasis mine):

“A lot of guys like to look at the numbers and judge a player based off of that stuff. [Other] guys like to watch the game, have that eye, and judge it off that,” Hosmer said. “Analytically, the stuff doesn’t add up in my favor. Me, as a player, I’m not going to change who I am because of what the analytics say.

Never mind the nonsense that analytics is qualitatively different than scouting and watching the game, because it isn’t—analytics is basically just recording what happens and looking at the data, which is pretty much exactly what coaches do without writing stuff down—that kind of approach is not what you want to see from a guy you signed for $144 million.

All told, Hosmer is making $21 million this year and accruing a cool -0.5 WAR. He turns 30 in less than a year and half. Spending loads of money on a bad player for years is a huge waste. And even if Hosmer turns it around, spending loads of money on a good player when your team is bad is just a different kind of waste. Either way, the Padres saved the Royals from an awful decision.

That they did doesn’t absolve the Royals for being so intent on screwing up. It just means Kansas City avoids the consequences—this time. Next time might not be so forgiving.