PEORIA, Ariz. — The player in the new, crisp No. 30 San Diego Padres jersey didn’t want to go down the road the questioner wished to take him. Eric Hosmer figured either he wasn’t the right guy or this wasn’t the right setting — Tuesday’s introductory news conference following Hosmer’s signing with the Padres, as well as the first day of full-squad workouts for his new team — to make any grand or pointed statements about the state of baseball’s much-scrutinized free agent market.
“Obviously it took a little longer than we expected, but it happened,” Hosmer said of the protracted negotiations that resulted in an eight-year, $144 million deal with the Padres, the biggest of this offseason. “It was long, but it didn’t seem that long because of the conversations we were having.”
The man to Hosmer’s right, however, had no qualms with tackling state-of-the-industry questions. It’s something Scott Boras does well. Something else the agent does well: Turning those questions into tortured analogies.
The Padres, Boras said from the dais, are “a volcano of hot talent-lava.”
“To turn that lava into major league rock, that’s a hard thing to do. … What Eric Hosmer brings, he went through all that in Kansas City. They turned into championship rocks. When you can have a young, veteran champion, I think your chances of guiding lava into rocks is pretty good. I think that’s the destiny and the plan.”
For all their hot lava, the Padres from the start seemed like an odd destination for Hosmer, a 28-year-old first baseman who was a pillar of the Royals teams that went to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015, winning it all on the second try. Having gone 11 seasons without a playoff berth and having averaged 91 losses in each of the past three, San Diego didn’t look like a team that was just one talented and high-priced veteran away from being ready to contend in 2018, or even 2019 or 2020 for that matter.
“From our standpoint, [with] a 28-year-old free agent,” Padres General Manager A.J. Preller said, “we were ultimately looking for guy who is going to bridge our current group and future groups.” Having built the Padres’ farm system into the third-ranked collection in the game, according to Baseball America, Preller said, “The next step was being able to layer in the right piece … to get us where we ultimately want to get to, which is a world championship for San Diego.”
It was clear Hosmer’s appeal to the Padres was only partly about the numbers — the 68 homers and .294/.359/.463 slash line he has put up the past three years, and the four Gold Gloves he has won in his career — and was at least equally about his intangibles: the leadership skills that have been devalued across the game in this age of analytics.
“I’m so pleased our modern-day analytics are proven wrong,” Boras said of Hosmer. “The prestige he brings to the game is valued. … He brings to the game a completeness. As we go forward, I think Eric Hosmer will be an example of how we need to do more to go beyond the algorithms and [look at] the human value a player can bring.”
For the Padres, the strategy of front-loading the Hosmer contract — in addition to a $5 million signing bonus, he will earn $20 million over each of the first five seasons, then $13 million in each of the last three — was a creative way to get around the issue of committing huge money to a player in his mid-30s, when they are typically in decline. Hosmer also has an opt-out clause that gives him the choice of forgoing the final three years and retesting free agency.
From Boras’s point of view, meanwhile, the significance of the Padres’ signing was in one small-market franchise — San Diego ranked 28th in baseball in payroll in 2017 — moving itself from the ranks of “not trying” to “trying.” He’s still looking for other teams to do the same with his other, still-unsigned clients, including starting pitcher Jake Arrieta.
“The [Padres] ownership is investing, and they [are] going to the ballpark with a plan to improve at the major league level,” Boras said. “ … They really illustrated to him their desire and their integrity to compete. I think that comforted Eric a great deal.”
Much has been made this winter of the tanking model, popularized by the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, and that as many as 10 different teams appear to be following at present. It has undoubtedly contributed to the unprecedented slowdown of the free agent market, with teams turning away from higher-priced veterans.
The second wild card, introduced in 2012, was supposed to have been an incentive for teams in the middle tier to compete for playoff spots. Instead, many teams apparently see a greater incentive in racking up large numbers of losses to secure better draft position and greater international bonus-pool money. It is a trend Boras has referred to as a “cancer” on the game.
“No one wants someone who quits, for a moment or for a season,” Boras said. “I think we’ve got a lot of excuse-making [on the part of teams]. We have a lot of reasons for non-competitiveness, and the reason for it is, [teams] are suggesting some sort of reward [for tanking]. … Our system is upside-down, because we never want to reward non-competitiveness. It’s a cancer. It damages the brand of baseball.”