Eric Hosmer is the most desirable free agent at first base this year, and probably within the top five most desirable overall.
Read that sentence again a couple of times.
It’s slim pickings this offseason, the belt-cinching ahead of the feast which will follow the 2018 campaign. Hosmer is legitimately a big fish in a small pond, and almost as importantly he’s coming off a career year in which he hit .318/.385/.498 — the best marks he’s ever posted in the three aspects of the triple slash during his seven years in Major League Baseball, while playing all 162 games.
He won’t quite get the contract the Baltimore Orioles handed to Chris Davis after his 2015 — Davis’s career year was markedly better, and he’d already done something like it once before in 2013 — but the negotiations will be starting somewhere in the 6-plus-year, $150+ million range from the Hosmer camp. (There’s no risk of the much-ballyhooed “10-year contract” from earlier this year; it’s highly likely that if the legendary ask from Hosmer was even real, his people made it just to let Kansas City know how interested he was in pursuing free agency, and they leaked it to the media because, well, he could have just said no to negotiating.)
With that in mind, and given that Logan Morrison is the consolation prize for any team that needs a first baseman but doesn’t want to pay over a hundred million dollars for the privilege, here are the three places Hosmer is most likely to end up.
- Kansas City Royals
Despite the weirdness surrounding the contract negotiations that played out before Spring Training, the Royals remain both the most interested and the most likely landing spot for Hosmer. He’s basically a “safer” Chris Davis in every way: little risk of cratering like Davis has since signing his big deal with Baltimore (if also with less interesting upside should he hit the jackpot on a season), but mainly valuable to his home organization because it’s the only one for whom his departure means there’s immediately a need.
First basemen are not in particularly high demand at the free-agent level in MLB, and the other two teams that are losing vaguely important 1B options — the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays — are not the clubs that generally drop $130 million on a position player, especially not when the likely prognosis for that position player over the remainder of his prime and into his decline is “average or slightly above average for the position, with a chance for a great season or two if you’re real lucky.” Even Hosmer’s career year this season was only good enough to make him the fifth-best first baseman at the plate, behind Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, Jose Abreu and Paul Goldschmidt by batting WAR.
The team that pays for Hosmer needs to get something more out of him than merely his production on the field, and the Royals have that sewn up already: Hosmer’s a face of the franchise and a leader in their locker room, and all the intangible benefits they get (or think they get) from keeping him around are benefits other teams have to hesitate before working them into their calculations. In the current market, Hosmer returning to the Royals is the only thing that makes real sense — unless some of our baseline assumptions of how free agency works under the new compensation rules are wrong.
- Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are a distant second to the Royals, but they’re the only team within firing range. Dave Dombrowski is famous for building his teams on free-agent signings and trades, then using his draft picks to fuel both engines coming and going, and that has worked reasonably well for him. The Sox need an upgrade at first base, and they need a massive upgrade of lineup power, but it remains to be seen if Boston could stomach a big contract for J.D. Martinez and a big contract for Hosmer in the same spending period, especially given that Hanley Ramirez’s deal remains on the books until it can find a way to move it or lose it. Should the Sox have to choose, Martinez is the clear winner there.
That said, the Ramirez-Moreland situation was untenable last year and would be untenable again next year if they signed another backup first baseman at Moreland’s competence level. Not that Moreland was bad for what he was, but the team needs a power bat in that spot and Ramirez seems to be spent at this point as anything but a singles hitter. The problem there is that Hosmer is no great shakes in the power department either — but considering the other two free-agent options in play are Logan Morrison and Carlos Santana, and there’s no immediate fix in sight in the minor league system, Hosmer at least represents a sensible all-around addition to the team if there’s money in the budget for him.
- Detroit Tigers
Hear me out.
No other landing spot in baseball after the Royals and Red Sox makes much sense. The Yankees had poor production from first this year but are trying to get under the luxury cap and are buying in hard on Greg Bird, and frankly he’s shown good cause for that. All of the other teams that could stomach a $130-140 million deal are already set at the position for a good long while, and the teams for whom Hosmer would be a notable upgrade are either tanking or rebuilding on lesser payrolls… except Detroit, which has two relevant problems: Miguel Cabrera can no longer do any of the things that would allow him to play first base all the time, and designated hitter Victor Martinez can no longer hit.
Cabrera needs to move to DH. It’s past time, no matter how much he’d prefer to stay out there, and the extra rest might help him recover at least some of his game at the plate. Martinez needs to be bid a fond farewell; eating his $18 million for next season will hurt, but it’s something the Tigers would have had to do anyway. Hosmer gives Detroit an actual first baseman to build around, and also helps the Tigers to be competitive immediately — because given how many other teams are outright tanking, Detroit should be trying to reload and jump right back into competition.
Is the money there? Perhaps not. There’s been an ownership change and Mike Ilitch’s kid might be more parsimonious than his father. But there are two things Eric Hosmer should do well: Be at least league average and not get hurt. That portends a guy with a fairly long shelf life, at least as far as injuries are concerned. With some luck, he could be a part of the next good Tiger team. This isn’t the path most teams in the majors are going down, and perhaps with good reason, but instead of being atrocious for four years and maybe good after that, it’s worth considering ways to jump-start the window’s opening.
The ruling’s clear no matter where he goes, anyway: Hosmer won’t save anyone’s team. But he sure might help.