There’s been plenty of rumblings over the past few weeks about the Cardinals’ interest in free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer. Several reports have them interested in him as a fall back option if the Blue Jays will not relent on their decision to hold onto Josh Donaldson. This week we also have some suggested contract offer numbers. First came the Padres at 7 years, $140 million. Then came the Royals at 7 years, $147 million.
Hosmer, 28, reached free agency for the first time this winter after hitting .318/.385/.498 with 25 home runs and 135 wRC+ while playing in all 162 games, starting 155 of those at first base. Durability is a big factor for Hosmer, who has played at least 150 games in five of the last six seasons. But he has also lacked consistency, having yet to post positive WAR seasons in back-to-back years.
The Cardinals do need to bring in another hitter, and Hosmer could potentially reflect a guy who could be that hitter. His 135 wRC+ ranked 25th in baseball. Bringing him in would give the Cardinals three of the top-25 players in wRC+ from 2017, joining him with Tommy Pham (148, 8th) and new acquisition Marcell Ozuna (142, 13th). That would tie them with the Astros and the Nationals with three a piece.
But is Eric Hosmer the player we saw in 2017 and is he worth the $147 million plus gamble it would take to bring him in?
Personally, I don’t think so.
Much of the debate on social media has centered in on the comparisons between Hosmer and Matt Carpenter. What becomes very obvious as you observe these debates is that the main problem is that the difference is not great enough to be obvious, otherwise there would be no debate. For example, nobody is having a debate on whether Donaldson is better than Jedd Gyorko.
Carpenter has outperformed Hosmer head-to-head in each of their full time seasons, except for the most recent, which was also a year that Carpenter played through a shoulder injury. Is that Carpenter on the decline or the younger Hosmer finally reaching his potential as he enters the prime years of his late 20s?
If you’re asking me who I’d rather give $147 million to over the next seven years, I probably choose Hosmer and cite age and Carpenter’s shoulder injury as the primary factors. But the reality is that that isn’t the choice. Carpenter is already under contract for 2 years, $30 million plus an option right now. It changes the math.
I always get push back when I suggest that Hosmer isn’t needed because the Cardinals already have Carpenter, Jose Martinez, and Luke Voit on the roster at first base. And while Hosmer might be better than any of those guys independently, I don’t see him as a big enough improvement to warrant spending that kind of money. Not only that, acquiring him makes Carpenter less valuable with a move to third base.
According to most defensive metrics, Carpenter was a neutral defensive first baseman while Hosmer defied his negative metrics and took home his second gold glove. My hypothesis for this is that Carpenter is generally an above average first baseman who makes some glaring errors, while Hosmer doesn’t make the glaring errors, but is generally not as good defensively. It produces the cognitive bias that makes the eye test tell you that Hosmer is the better defender.
But ultimately, that’s not the only part of the equation. Last season Jedd Gyorko was a +16 defensive runs saved at third base. In his last full season at third base, Carpenter was a -10 defensive runs saved. That’s a -26 run swing. Factor in the change at first base where Carpenter was a +1 and Hosmer was a -7, that’s a total -34 run swing on defense by bringing Hosmer in and moving Carpenter to third.
Offensively, the Carpenter-Gyorko combination had a total of 165 wRC (weighted Runs Created, not normalized) while a Hosmer-Carpenter combo would have produced 210, a swing of +45 runs created on offense.
So if you want to do a quick and ugly wouldn’t bank my house on it comparison the Cardinals would spend at least $147 million to bring in Hosmer and gain maybe a total of 11 runs.
And that’s while being somewhat optimistic that Hosmer can reproduce what he did last year on a regular basis. That brings me to my biggest flashing red light.
He played 131 games in 2014 with a 0 WAR and played 158 games in 2016 with a -0.1 WAR. He surrounded those years with 3+ WAR years, topping out last year with a career best 4.1 WAR. Are you going to get the 3+ WAR player or are you going to get the guy who plays everyday at a replacement level for $20+ million a year? As I said before, he has yet to post positive WAR seasons in back-to-back years. The Cardinals have plenty of guys capable of being replacement level players who would earn far less.
As a result, first base isn’t a viable option for upgrade when the best option is Eric Hosmer. Now, if Paul Goldschmidt or Joey Votto were a free agent, I’m onboard because they are elite bats who would clearly be an upgrade over what already exists on the roster.
Third base and shortstop still remain the Cardinals’ best opportunity for improvement in their everyday lineup. If the Cardinals were going to use Carpenter in a trade to land Donaldson (which I’ve been suggesting for almost a year now), I could support bringing in Hosmer.
But I don’t see how Hosmer not only fits with the Cardinals but makes them better off than they were before they signed him.
Common sense would dictate that you try to play your players where they are most valuable to you. For Carpenter, he is most valuable at first base. And Hosmer does not bring enough additional value to the table to make it worth moving him somewhere else.