Padres' deal with Hosmer risky but defensible

San Diego first basemen were 22nd-best in baseball last year

February 19th, 2018

The Padres lost 91 games last year, their seventh straight losing season, and the major projection systems at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus have them losing 89 and 88 games this year, respectively. Adding , as they have reportedly done, won't by itself make them a contender. It won't make anyone think they have more than the fifth-best roster in the five-team National League West. It probably won't even make them a .500 club.

You already know where this is going: Why bother spending more than $140 million to add a good-but-not-great player to a roster who is not ready to win? "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you," legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey was once quoted as saying to future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner. The same idea, depending on your perspective, could apply here.

Hot Stove Tracker

The arguments against this deal aren't hard to find. By the advanced metrics, Hosmer was only as valuable as or Corey Dickerson over the last two years, and Dickerson just got designated for assignment by the Rays. If you value All-Star Games, Hosmer's made only one. He's never hit 30 homers. He's never finished in the Top 10 in MVP Award voting. Contrary to his Gold Glove Awards, the advanced metrics see a well below-average fielder, and now has to move to the outfield. Hosmer's the opposite of consistent; in his six full seasons, he's had three strong ones and three weak ones. Even his postseason heroics have been overstated; he hit just .224/.273/.286 in 12 World Series games.

We mention all that because it's important, and valid; if you're not wild about the move the Padres just made, you're perfectly justified in feeling that way. But there's a larger perspective to be had here, one that's oddly unique in this ice-cold Hot Stove season.

The Padres just made their team better, all it cost was money -- money they can afford -- and you can't wait for the time to be right to add every part you'll need at once.

In a baseball world where not every team is trying to win right now, the Padres -- the Padres! -- just handed out the largest contract of the offseason to add a useful player. Even with Hosmer, they still have a bottom-10 payroll. They haven't broken the bank, they got better, and isn't that what it's all about?

For all of the things to worry about with Hosmer, it's important to remember that there's obviously positives here, too. He did just have his best season, after all, hitting .318/.385/.498 (135 wRC+), which made him the 25th-best qualified hitter, between and . That was even better if you set aside his horrific April; he hit .335/.402/.533 (149 wRC+) from May 1 on. (You can account for his unquantifiable clubhouse reputation here if you like.)

If you knew you were getting production like that each year, then this contract would be perfectly reasonable, if not a bargain. But if he does hit like that, then it's not actually an eight-year deal at all. With an opt-out after the fifth year, this is essentially a five-year deal for $105 million (including the $5 million signing bonus) that allows Hosmer to opt-in for the final three years and $39 million if he chooses to.

Hosmer deal accelerates Padres' rebuild

If he's performing well, he'll certainly take that opt-out. If he's not, well, then the Padres are probably sunk anyway; three years for $39 million isn't that much right now (it's what just got) and it will be less in five years. If Hosmer's taking that, then things have gone really, truly poorly -- almost unreasonably so, barring major injury.

Over the first five years of the deal, that's an average of $21 million per year, which is admittedly a lot for a player who comes with some questions about consistency. Then again, that's not in the Top 25 of average salaries, either. It's less than , or .

Hosmer isn't being paid to be a superstar, because he's not. He's being paid to be above-average, and to make the Padres better. That's a reasonable expectation. No, that doesn't mean they'll get Manny Machado or next winter; they won't. It means that they used available cash to add talent to what was already a very interesting young roster.

Now, could the Padres have done something else with the money this offseason? Perhaps. In terms of the other big-ticket free agents, there were few fits. , and are all entering their age-32 seasons, which makes little sense for a building team. For Hosmer, at just 28, you're paying for what you might expect to be his "prime" seasons. That's not the normal course of free agency, where players reach the market into their 30s and then expect to be paid into their decline years for what they did in the years leading up to them.

You wouldn't gamble on a veteran reliever that far into the future, and if you assume no other first baseman was going to displace Myers, then the other free-agent options for San Diego were to basically ... do nothing. There are few benefits to that course of action.

Though the fit is imperfect -- Myers wasn't a strong outfielder when he was there before, and now an interesting young player like or or loses playing time -- there's also something to be said about taking the player willing to take your money, too. There's a reason this is by far the largest free-agent contract the Padres have ever signed; for all the stories about the great weather and ballpark, San Diego has rarely been a preferred free-agent destination, though it might work out well for Hosmer.

At the start of the offseason, it didn't seem like it would be a fit for Hosmer, either. It seemed like the Red Sox would be all over him, or that he'd go back to Kansas City. It didn't work out that way, and the Padres had a chance to get in the bidding for a high price, but not an inflated one. For all the ways the timing is wrong, in that sense, the timing was very right.

The Padres aren't going to be great in 2018, but that's not the point. Though the Dodgers aren't going away, the aging Giants are geared up for one last run, the Rockies have Charlie Blackmon and then nearing free agency and the D-backs have to deal with the same for A.J. Pollock and then . You can see a window opening in the NL West. You can see a consensus Top 3 farm system, led by No. 8 overall prospect

You can see the point here, anyway. Hosmer is a polarizing player, and this is a polarizing deal. It might very well not work out, just like it didn't work out when the Padres went overboard to add , Matt Kemp, and prior to 2015. But he makes them better in '18, given that their '17 first basemen were the 22nd-best group in baseball, and he's only 28, and he's arriving just before a window where they think they can contend.

Sure, it's a risk. Small-market teams have to take risks. It's better for the sport, the city, and the franchise that they do. After all, another year of doing nothing hardly seems appealing.