As the calendar has turned from December to January, and a new year has begun, left-handed-hitting first baseman Eric Hosmer still dominates headlines as his free agency continues. At this moment, Padres’ Twitter continues to tear itself apart with arguments over whether or not signing Hosmer is worth it, and justifications abound on both sides.
The cases for and against Eric Hosmer are clear at this point, but let’s reiterate the points on both sides in the interest of clarity.
In the pro column, Hosmer is young, just 28 prior to the start of the 2018 season, and he is coming off of his most successful season to date, with a .318/.385/.498 slash line with a career-best 135 wRC+ and 4.1 fWAR. Given his age and recent success, Hosmer is a player who could continue to be good as the Padres turn the page from rebuilding team to a contender. On top of that, Hosmer is a left-handed hitter, which would complement a Padres’ lineup, and really farm system, that is devoid of impact left-handed options. And finally, Hosmer has a history of being a proven leader in a Royals’ clubhouse that reached back-to-back World Series, a fact that could be beneficial to a young Padres’ team going forward.
In the cons column, the arguments are also pretty clear. Hosmer has had some solid full seasons of offensive output, but also three seasons with negative or zero fWAR. If the Padres are looking for a player who has shown a level of consistency, Hosmer may not be that guy. Beyond that, signing first basemen to long-term contracts is always a risk, regardless of age. While some say Hosmer is an above average glove at first, advanced stats have painted a different picture. In addition, Hosmer’s baserunning has seen a similar up and down that his offensive output and defense have seen throughout his career. So despite his age and big 2017 season, Hosmer isn’t free from risk given his shortcomings over the course of his career.
Given all the pros and cons, you really could make an argument either way about the Padres signing Hosmer.
But that’s not the point of this article. The point of this article is to discuss another, even better free agent option for the San Diego Padres. If the Padres are intent on making a splash in free agency, which they appear to be at this point, there is a move that may make more financial and logistic sense than signing Hosmer.
Despite being the team leader on the Kansas City Royals over the last half-dozen years, Hosmer has consistently not even been the best player on his own team. That honor would have to go to center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who has also been a Royal since being acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers as part of the Zack Greinke trade way back in 2010. At this point, signing Lorenzo Cain would make a lot more sense than signing Eric Hosmer.
I know what you are thinking, Lorenzo Cain is a 32-year-old center fielder who has most of his value tied up in his solid defensive performance. Compared to Hosmer, Cain is four years older and probably already reaching the decline phase of his career while Hosmer very well could still be in the prime of his career. However, Cain has several important points in his corner that make him valuable in his own right.
From 2013-2017, five seasons in which both Cain and Hosmer played in at least 100 games, Cain put up an overall slash line of .291/.345/.423 with a 6.8 percent walk rate, 18.3 percent strikeout rate, and 108 wRC+. In that same time, Hosmer put up a slash line of .292/.351/.449 with an 8.4 percent walk rate, 16.6 percent strikeout rate, and a 117 wRC+. Overall, pretty similar numbers except for Hosmer’s more solid power numbers. In fairness, Hosmer played in over 100 more games during that time and had around 600 more plate appearances.
Looking a little deeper, you see how Cain sets himself apart from Hosmer. Not only does Cain have a slightly better line drive rate, but Cain also has a lower groundball rate and better fly ball rate. Cain lacks the HR/FB percent, and thus power numbers, of Hosmer, but his medium and hard-hit rate are on par with Hosmer. However, offense is just one part of the game after all, and Cain really benefits from the other aspects of baseball. Over that five-year stretch from 2013-2017, Cain put up a total BsR of 16.3 with a Fangraphs DEF score of 65.2 compared to a -5.5 BsR and a -65.2 DEF for Hosmer during that time. Finally, Cain’s fWAR of 20.6 dwarfs Hosmer’s 10.7 fWAR during that same stretch. While Cain has averaged just over 4.0 fWAR over the last five years despite missing time due to injury, Hosmer has barely been above 2.0 fWAR despite playing in nearly 100 more games during that time.
Now in fairness, Hosmer is a first baseman, and first base does not have the same positional value as center field, but that’s a big part of the comparison that needs to be made. If Hosmer’s offensive performance dips at all, his overall value takes a big hit. On the other hand, if Cain sees a dip in offensive value, or even a slight dip in defensive value, his more well-rounded profile allows him to maintain more value despite some decline.
To be fair, Cain is a 32-year-old center fielder who has seen his defensive performance decline in each of the last five seasons. Similarly, his baserunning has also been sort of up and down in recent years. However, the Padres have a built-in solution to helping alleviate some of those concerns: Manuel Margot.
For those keeping track at home, the Padres already have a center fielder of both the present and the future in Margot. But this makes signing Cain the perfect idea. Despite the great success left fielder Jose Pirela had in a Padres’ uniform in 2017, it’s hard to see the 28-year-old career minor leaguer matching his 122 wRC+ and 2.1 fWAR in half a season of plate appearances last year. Beyond that, Pirela doesn’t seem like a long-term fit in left field for the Padres.
So this leads us to Lorenzo Cain. If the Padres are serious about making a free agent acquisition this offseason, Cain would be the perfect one. Rather than shift Myers to left field to make room for Hosmer, why not leave Myers where he is and bring in a center fielder to play left. Sure, you would have to sell Cain on the idea of playing in left field for a non-contending team, but given the Padres’ long-term outlook and depth of young talent, it should be an easy sell for A.J. Preller and company. Beyond that, Cain could age more gracefully in left field and survive the slight hit to his defensive value by being in left instead of center. If he can maintain his solid above average offensive profile, he could fit in very nicely at the top of the order with Manuel Margot and the additions of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Luis Urias looming.
With Cain in left and Margot in center, and with the possibility of Franchy Cordero getting playing time in right field, the Padres have the opportunity to have one of the best outfield defenses in all of baseball, a fact that would certainly help as more and more young pitchers come up through the pipeline.
To make one final point in Cain’s column, he will very likely cost a lot less than Hosmer. The market for Cain seems tepid at best at this point, and it appears likely the Padres could swoop in and sign Cain to a four-year deal in the range of $70-80 million. At that cost, Cain could be a bargain and a strong veteran presence as the Padres turn from rebuilder to contender in the next few seasons. With the 60 to 70 million dollars the Padres could save by not signing Hosmer, they could go out and make additional moves next offseason to further solidify any roster holes.
While Eric Hosmer is probably the splashier move for the Padres’ offseason, it is neither the most financially sound or logistically optimal. Despite being older than Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain has put up better overall numbers and has been a more consistent all-around player. Injury and age are definite concerns, but with a lower investment, the Padres can mitigate some of that risk. In addition to that, Cain is also the better roster fit, as he allows Myers to stay at first and greatly improves left field defense in San Diego. With the Padres on the cusp of being competitive again, they need to make the right roster decisions to maximize their young talent while maintaining financial flexibility to fill holes when necessary. Cain is the right decision in both cases.