Eric Hosmer Finds His Change of Scenery. And What Lovely Scenery It Is.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

When I wrote up the Cubs’ signing of Drew Smyly, I reflected on the… let’s call it uninspiring state of the rest of the roster. Plenty of solid players, little star power, little upside to speak of. For a putative big-market team with (as of the Smyly signing) a payroll almost $20 million under the luxury tax threshold, that’s an easy enough problem to solve early in the offseason. Less so now, when most of the quality free agents have already found employment for 2023. So at the end of the Smyly post, I made a joke: “Could they convince Cubs fans that Eric Hosmer is Anthony Rizzo with a beard and thicker eyebrows?”

Good news, everyone: There’s a new Rizzo in town, and his eyebrows are magnificent.

Jesse Rogers of ESPN reported Wednesday afternoon that the Cubs had, in fact, agreed to terms with Hosmer. Years ago, the 33-year-old first baseman was the first marquee signing of what became the current Padres’ run of contention, but on August 2 of last year, he was deemed surplus to requirements. As San Diego completed the Juan SotoJosh Bell blockbuster, the Friars shipped Hosmer to Boston, and retained almost all of the $13 million a year left on his contract for the privilege of doing so. Hosmer, who will make that amount in each of the next three seasons, will only cost the Cubs the league minimum, Rogers reports.

It’s worth having the discussion about what Hosmer has been throughout his career, what he is now, and how his reputation stacks up with reality. Certainly, there are Cubs fans who will be disappointed to see him at first base on Opening Day and not the actual Rizzo, or Bell, or José Abreu, or Brandon Drury. Though, hey, Brandon Belt and Trey Mancini are still out there, so maybe there’s another move coming.

But if the Cubs are paying Hosmer the league minimum, who cares? At his peak, Hosmer was a regular .300 hitter who didn’t hit for much power at all given his positional expectations, but he was hard to strike out and got on base. There’s a 135 wRC+ season in the not-too-distant past, and a partial 128 wRC+ season just three years ago. It’s a long shot that’s still in there, but what are the Cubs paying to find out? Basically nothing. I’ve eaten sandwiches that were riskier than this signing. (You can play fast and loose with expiration dates, and put pickled habaneros on your turkey and cheese, but you might regret it if you do both at the same time.)

And by dint of Chicago’s still-open DH spot, Patrick Wisdom and Matt Mervis can still get plenty of playing time, if that’s a major concern for Jed Hoyer and David Ross. It’s not like Hosmer’s even blocking anyone.

So why did he get given away basically for free twice in the span of four months? And what might the Cubs see in him now?

Let’s take those questions in turn. Hosmer has long been a polarizing figure in the baseball world, inspiring great disagreement over how good he actually was. Hosmer’s supporters pointed to his defense, his ability to hit for average, and his winning mentality. His detractors pointed to that lack of power, and the fact that his defense — if it was ever as good as advertised — mattered less at first base than it would have at, say, shortstop or in center field. Hosmer came of sporting maturity about the same time as baseball’s empirical revolution. He could be one of the last players to have a reputation that outweighs the empirics, and therefore be credited with whatever intangibles are necessary to square the circle.

He was a good player, on balance, but maybe not as good as four Gold Gloves or the occasional All-Star selection and down-ballot MVP vote. Or to start over Paul Goldschmidt on Team USA.

On the other hand, Team USA won the World Baseball Classic for the first time with Hosmer in the lineup. The Royals won back-to-back pennants in 2014 and ’15. A.J. Preller, who at the time was considered such a new-age-y GM he stank of patchouli and incense, made Hosmer a marquee signing, locking up this much-derided first baseman for eight years. And sure enough, when the Padres made it back to the playoffs in 2020, Hosmer was in the thick of it all.

But no matter what Instagram tells you, no amount of winning mentality can outweigh the ravages of time. Hosmer was excellent in 2020, hitting .287/.333/.517, but he only played 38 games in a regular season that only lasted 60. That’s a small sample. Apart from that, he hasn’t posted a wRC+ better than 104 since 2017, nor has he posted a full season over replacement level in that time. The qualities that usually got hand-waved around his lack of power — superior athleticism and defense — have also faded. Hosmer was in the 18th percentile for sprint speed in 2022, stole zero bases, and graded out near the bottom of the league in just about every advanced defensive metric.

By season’s end the Red Sox, who were also paying Hosmer peanuts, didn’t find him worth keeping. That’d despite needing (at the time) a DH and an insurance policy for Triston Casas. And since Hosmer played just 14 games for Boston and slugged .311, it’s easy to see why the Sox moved on.

How does that appeal to the Cubs? First, for minimum salary, having a rings-in-the-room type can be useful. After all, how many players in major league history have played in the postseason for both the Royals and the Padres, two historically moribund franchises? (I’m really asking, I can’t think of any others offhand.)

And the rough tenure in Boston isn’t as brutal as it looks on the surface. Hosmer fouled a ball off his knee about a week after the trade, then spent six weeks on the IL with a back injury suffered shortly thereafter. Even if he weren’t hurt, it would be fair to wonder if the frustration and shame of being jettisoned by a Padres team on the rise did anything to his motivation or confidence. It would be weird if the circumstances of his departure didn’t bum him out.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s write off Hosmer’s Red Sox tenure and concentrate on what he did before the trade. Hoz got out of the gate white-hot, hitting .389 with nine extra-base hits in March and April. And if there’s an argument for Hosmer once again becoming an average-or-better overall first baseman, it lies in the fact that he shows it in flashes. He still hits the ball really damn hard — Hosmer was in the 88th percentile for maximum exit velo last season, and has a 453-foot home run on his CV from 2021 — he just doesn’t translate that power into games because he usually pounds the ball into the ground. Of 42 first basemen with at least 300 PA last year, Hosmer was first in both groundball rate and GB/FB ratio.

The kind of player who can live with hitting that many groundballs is someone like Tim Anderson or Michael Harris II — a fast, line drive hitter. For a left-handed first baseman who doesn’t run that well anymore and has a 39.1% pull rate, which is what Hosmer posted last season, that’s a recipe for a series of routine groundballs into the shift.

Maybe the Cubs think there’s something about Hosmer they can straighten out; even now, he’s got good enough contact skills that he can afford to trade some swing-and-miss for more power. Or maybe they think eliminating the shift will be good for him. Or maybe they think — and this is a reasonable inference — he’ll benefit from moving to Wrigley Field from Petco Park.

But let’s say Hosmer just is what he is. While he cooled off significantly enough to not warrant a roster spot by August, his overall numbers with the Padres weren’t that bad. It’s not first-division starter material by any means, and Hosmer still slugged below .400, but he walked a decent amount, didn’t strike out, and hit for a high average.

2022 Offensive Stats
Hosmer with SDP 8.9 14.9 .272 .336 .391 108 0.4
All CHC 1B 8.8 25.3 .232 .304 .348 86 -0.6

And compared to what the Cubs trotted out at first base last year, Hosmer looks like Frank Thomas. You can go on and on about “hole at first base,” but it really sinks in when you’re confronted with a team-wide .232/.304/.348 line out of first base. Yikes! Upgrading from the 2022 first base mélange to Hosmer might do the Cubs as much good as bringing in Jameson Taillon.

Hosmer probably won’t set the league on fire in 2023. But he’s a recognizable name and face the Cubs can use to sell tickets, a veteran who can bring experience to the clubhouse, and a prime candidate to benefit from a change of scenery. Even if it doesn’t work, what have the Cubs lost by trying? A couple hundred at-bats’ worth of playing time and a few months of a prorated $720,000 salary? Might as well.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

He is exactly what the cubs lack. A clubhouse presence with grit,leadership and clutchness on the field