Eric Hosmer’s impending free agency and the luxury tax plan

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

The Royals took a really big gamble this year. So many of their core players are due to become free agents after the season, but they decided to hang on to everyone at the trade deadline and try to make a run in the second half. Kansas City was in the second wildcard spot on July 31st so hey, it wasn’t an unreasonable decision. It was still a gamble.

That gamble has not worked out. The Royals are 17-23 since the trade deadline and they are now three games behind the second wildcard spot with 18 games to play. They’re not out of it by any means, but things aren’t looking great right now. FanGraphs puts their postseason odds at 9.1%. General manager Dayton Moore was hoping for a big second half and another deep playoff run. Probably not going to happen.

Among Kansas City’s impending free agent core players are center fielder Lorenzo Cain (this offseason’s Jacoby Ellsbury and Jason Heyward) and third baseman Mike Moustakas, as well as first baseman Eric Hosmer. Hosmer has been a household name for a while now, ever since his days as a prospect and top three draft pick, though it wasn’t until this season that he’s really lived up to the hype. He’s hitting .328/.394/.517 (141 wRC+) with 24 homers in 2017.

According to Jon Heyman, the Yankees like Hosmer “very much,” and usually when the Yankees like an impending free agent “very much,” it means they’re going to go after him in the offseason. And the Yankees might pursue Hosmer. Who knows? The plan to get under the $197M luxury tax plan is a real thing though, and that might stand in the way of a Hosmer pursuit. A few things about this.

1. On paper, Hosmer is a great fit for the Yankees. Chase Headley has been, far and away, the best Yankees first baseman this season. It’s not even close. And that’s a problem because ideally Headley wouldn’t be your best anything. Hosmer, despite his up-and-down track record, offers the following, in no particular order:

  1. A left-handed bat. New York’s lineup leans right-handed these days and it’s only going to get worse as righties Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier work their way into the full-time lineup.
  2. Youth, relatively speaking. Hosmer will turn 28 in October, so whichever team signs him will get several peak seasons, at least in theory. This isn’t a 30-something. He’ll spend all of 2017 at 27.
  3. World Series experience. This isn’t nothing! It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing either. Hosmer has been a key member of two AL pennant teams and one World Series champ. He knows all about winning and how ridiculously difficult it is to win a championship.
  4. Contact skills. Hosmer’s worst single season strikeout rate is 19.8% last year, which was better than league average. It’s 15.6% this year and 16.3% for his career. Putting the ball in play is good.
  5. Quality defense. The defensive stats don’t like Hosmer for whatever reason, but defensive stats struggle with first basemen anyway. The eye test tells me he’s above-average, especially at scooping the ball. He’s a vacuum over there.

My concern with Hosmer is that he’s the first base version of Heyward, a 20-something who gets overrated based on name value and potential. Whoever signs Hosmer will be doing so hoping his offense ticks up the next few years — and it very well might as a lefty hitter in Yankee Stadium — rather than hoping he maintains his decidedly meh .284/.344/.440 (111 wRC+) career batting line. I wanted the Yankees to sign Heyward for that reason and boy was I wrong.

Adding a young-ish left-handed hitter who doesn’t strike out a ton and plays a strong first base and knows what it takes to win the World Series sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? It does. On paper, Hosmer really fits what the Yankees need going forward. How would it actually play out? Who knows. Big name free agent signings have a way of disappointing.

2. The Yankees have luxury tax space for a big signing (probably). My real quick back of the envelope math suggests the Yankees have about $40M to spend this offseason even if Masahiro Tanaka doesn’t opt-out. Some of that money will be earmarked for a new starting pitcher given CC Sabathia‘s impending free agency. Also, the Yankees aren’t to spend right up to the luxury tax limit. They need some wiggle room for in-season additions.

Point is, there appears to be enough space under the luxury tax threshold to sign Hosmer, who is surely looking at $20M+ per year. Elite players are getting $30M+ per season these days, but I don’t see that happening, even with Scott Boras calling the shots. If Tanaka opts out, the Yankees will definitely be able to afford a prime free agent. That said … Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Imagine not being about to sign one of those dudes because you’re paying Hosmer big bucks. Oy vey. Anyway, yes, there looks to be payroll space to sign Hosmer, should the Yankees choose to go in that direction.

3. The free agent compensation is nothing. The Royals are of course going to make Hosmer the qualifying offer. The Yankees will pay luxury tax this year, so according to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, they will have to surrender their second and fifth highest draft picks, plus $1M in international bonus money to sign any qualified free agent this offseason. That’s not bad at all. You do lose draft bonus pool money, but you get to keep your first rounder, and you could always trade for more international money. As far as I’m concerned, the new free agent compensation rules are negligible. They’re not going to deter anyone from anything.

4. Don’t forget about Bird. The Yankees still have a pretty talented young first baseman in Greg Bird, and they’d love love love him to develop into a left-handed complement to Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. Remember, Brian Cashman said Bird is still the first baseman of the future a few weeks ago. The Yankees really like this kid. Maybe a little too much. Signing Hosmer would presumably turn Bird into trade bait or a full-time designated hitter, which might not be such a bad thing given his ongoing injury issues. The youth movement is real though. Signing someone else’s big name to block your talented young kid is an old Yankees move.

* * *

An undeniable fact: Greg Bird has not been a productive big leaguer in two years now. Not since his 2015 debut. He missed last season with the shoulder injury and most of this season with an ankle injury. And he’s missed the last two games with lower back tightness, which might not seem like such a big deal, except a back injury is what led to him transitioning from catcher to first base back in the day. Bird, two years after that big debut, is still an unknown.

My guess is yes, the Yankees do like Hosmer as a player, but not enough to displace Bird and potentially put the luxury tax plan in jeopardy. Hosmer is a good player, not a truly great one, and tying up considerable payroll space on a good player when you already have a talented youngster at that position doesn’t seem like a great idea. Bird’s injuries worry me. How could they not? I’m still not ready to move on and spend big on a first baseman though.

Scouting the Trade Market: First Basemen

Lucas Duda. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Lucas Duda. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

On the off-chance that Ji-Man Choi is not a true-talent 216 wRC+ hitter, the Yankees are going to need a first baseman to solidify and stabilize both the lineup and the infield defense. Chris Carter played himself into a second DFA, Greg Bird may require surgery on his balky right ankle, and none of the team’s internal options seem befitting of a team with playoff aspirations.

All of that put together, assuming the Yankees do not continue to struggle into the waning days of July, should make them something of a buyer as the trade deadline approaches. The question then becomes a simple matter of who is available, and at what cost?

The simplest way to hazard a guess at the marketplace is to see what rentals are available (meaning who will be a free agent at season’s end). As per MLB Trade Rumors, that group is mildly enticing:

  • Yonder Alonso, Oakland A’s
  • Pedro Alvarez, Baltimore Orioles
  • Lucas Duda, New York Mets
  • Todd Frazier, Chicago White Sox
  • Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals
  • John Jaso, Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Adam Lind, Washington Nationals
  • Mitch Moreland, Boston Red Sox
  • Logan Morrison, Tampa Bay Rays
  • Mike Napoli, Texas Rangers
  • Mark Reynolds, Colorado Rockies
  • Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians
  • Danny Valencia, Seattle Mariners

There are several names that can be ruled out immediately – Alvarez (trading within the division for a player reminiscent of Chris Carter), Lind (the Nationals aren’t selling), Moreland (the Red Sox aren’t selling), Morrison (trading within the division for someone that needlessly bashed Gary Sanchez), Reynolds (the Rockies aren’t selling), and Santana (the Indians aren’t sellers) are unlikely to pop-up on the Yankees radar for various reasons. Napoli is an unlikely target, as well, given that he may be the worst first baseman in the game this year, with a 77 wRC+ and -0.6 fWAR. That leaves us with:

Yonder Alonso

Alonso has been one of the best stories of this half-season, serving as a standard bearer for the flyball revolution (or the juiced ball, whichever point of view you prefer). He is currently slashing .280/.375/.568 with 19 HR in 280 PA, good for a 150 wRC+. There have been some signs of regression, though, as Alonso hit .267/.353/.433 with just 3 HR (114 wRC+) and an elevated strikeout rate in June. He’s also struggled with some nagging injuries, which has been the case on an almost year-to-year basis.

I’d be a bit weary of Alonso, due to how inflated his numbers are by his incredible May. A team might be willing to pay for his line on the season, rolling the dice that he’s broken out after years of mediocrity, and the A’s are sure to shop him aggressively.

Lucas Duda

The Yankees have not made many deals with the Mets, but it does happen on occasion – and there could be a definite match here, as the teams trend in different directions. Duda finally seems to be healthy, and he’s batting .249/.359/.548 with 14 home runs and a 137 wRC+ in 231 PA. He has a 123 wRC+ for his career, and he posted a 134 wRC+ between 2014 and 2015, so this isn’t a complete outlier. Duda may not hit for average, but he takes plenty of walks (11.5% for his career) and hits for power (.211 ISO).

As a result of this, Duda is likely the best hitter of this group, when healthy. That caveat bears repeating, but he feels like the safest bet to be a middle of the order thumper.

Todd Frazier

Frazier is a solid defensive third-baseman, so this is cheating a bit – but he has played a few games at first this year, and 94 in his career. He’s batting .215/.332/.450 with 16 HR (107 wRC+), but that is weighed-down by his early struggles. Frazier raked in June, with 8 HR and a 144 wRC+ in 109 PA, and he has hit for power throughout his career. His month-to-month inconsistencies, however, have followed him for several years now.

That being said, Frazier is an interesting target, if only because of his positional versatility. If Bird manages to get healthy or another internal option rears his head, Frazier could shift across the diamond and relieve Headley of everyday duty. He’s a feast or famine type, but the famine isn’t as bad some other options.

Eric Hosmer

I struggled with including Hosmer here, as the Royals aren’t all that far from contention. He’s in the midst of a bounceback season (he’s always better in odd-numbered years), with a .313/.371/.484 slash line (126 wRC+) in 348 PA, and he’s been a key to the team’s turnaround. The Royals have several key players coming up on free agency this off-season, though, so they may be inclined to cash-in now, instead of chasing a wild card berth and little else.

Hosmer is the youngest option here, at 27-years-old, and might be the least obtainable player in this group. There’s probably a team out there that would swing a deal for him with an eye towards re-signing him, and that’s unlikely to be the Yankees.

John Jaso

Jaso is strictly a platoon player at this point, with only 69 PA against LHP since the beginning of 2015. He has done fairly well in that role, though, with a 119 wRC+ against righties in that stretch (108 in 2017). Jaso is hitting .250/.326/.459 with 7 HR (107 wRC+) in 193 PA on the season, spending time at first and in both outfield corners.

If I had to handicap this group, I would bet that Jaso is the most available and most easily attainable player. He’s also the most uninspiring, though, as someone that only partially fills the need at first.

Danny Valencia

I nearly left Valencia out due to his character issues, but that hasn’t necessarily dissuaded the Yankees lately. The 32-year-old journeyman (he has played for seven teams since the beginning of 2012) is batting .272/.335/.412 with 8 HR (104 wRC+) in 310 PA, as he adjusts to being a full-time first baseman for the first time in his career. Those numbers are a bit skewed, though – he had a 53 wRC+ in April, but a 122 wRC+ since. And that 122 wRC+ is essentially the happy medium between his 2015 and 2016 seasons.

Valencia offers some positional flexibility, having spent time at first, third, and both corner outfield spots. His defense isn’t particularly strong at any position, though. I do like Valencia’s bat, but I do worry that his bouncing around the majors and last year’s fight with Billy Butler may be indicative of a somewhat toxic presence.


Each and every one of these guys likely represents an upgrade over Choi, though I wouldn’t be terribly enthusiastic about bringing Jaso or Valencia on-board. Jaso would need to be leveraged as a platoon bat in order to extract the most value, and Choi’s production at Triple-A, age, and five years of team control may just merit being afforded that same opportunity. And, as much as I try to avoid harping on unquantifiable concerns, Valencia’s history is disconcerting for such a young team.

That leaves us with Alonso, Duda, Frazier, and Hosmer. I won’t hazard any trade proposals, as mine would almost certainly suck, but I would be most interested in Duda, Hosmer, Alonso, and Frazier, in that order. And, depending upon the cost, I think that all four are worth kicking the tires on.