Examining Landing Spots for Rhys Hoskins

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Rhys Hoskins is a free agent, and it’s kind of weird. The 30-year-old first baseman spent 10 seasons in the Phillies organization, six of them (plus one full year spent on the injured list) with the major league club. For a time, he was one of the only bright spots on a completely moribund team, but eventually the big fella settled into a role as a supporting player and de facto table-setter for a lineup built around Bryce Harper. His achievements in that role include the Bat Spike home run, a three-run dinger off Spencer Strider in the 2022 NLDS — the Phillies’ first home playoff game in 11 years.

While it was surpassed in the imagination by Harper’s pennant-winning homer in the rain later that October, the image of Hoskins’ celebration lives on in memory as a highly localized version of the José Bautista bat flip for people who are deeply upset by the decline in the quality of Wawa’s sandwich bread since the chain went national. You want to watch the home run again? I do. Let’s watch it again.

Hoskins had his ups and downs with Phillies fans over the years. His debut season — 18 home runs in just 50 games in 2017 — sparked expectations that he’d turn into what Pete Alonso eventually became, plus five points of walk rate. After that, Hoskins bounced from first base to left field when he probably should’ve been a DH. (The Phillies love to sign too many first basemen and try to cram them all onto the field at the same time; apart from an extremely dark 18 months where Tommy Joseph had the position locked down, the Phillies have used first basemen or designated hitters in left field almost nonstop since the days of Travis Lee and Pat Burrell at the turn of the century.)

That’s not a knock on Hoskins. I was trying to think of Philadelphia athletes from my lifetime who 1) hung around as long as Hoskins did and 2) never went through a rough patch with the fans and local talking heads. The list: Brian Dawkins, and maybe Chase Utley. It’s an easy crowd to please in general, but a very tough crowd to please all the time.

Hoskins was denied his walk year, and a part in the Phillies’ defense of their 2022 pennant, when he tore his ACL in spring training last year. A late scramble to return to the bench for the playoffs came up just a week or two short. Harper moved to first, and he’s staying there for the foreseeable future, in part to accommodate Kyle Schwarber — who’s even worse defensively than Hoskins — as a full-time DH.

So that’s it. Hoskins is looking for work for the first time since college. Let’s find him a home.

The value that Hoskins brings is obvious. His power can be streaky on a game-to-game basis — a danger of being a three true outcome-heavy hitter — but in the aggregate, he’s one of the most consistent players in baseball. Hoskins is a career .242/.353/492 hitter, with a 13.5% walk rate and a 23.9% strikeout rate. That’s a career wRC+ of 126.

In four full seasons in the majors (discounting Hoskins’ 50-game rookie season and the 41 games he played in 2020), he’s never been worth more than 2.4 WAR, nor less than 2.0. His full-season career low in wRC+ is 112, while his full-season career high is 128. You can like or dislike the total package, but you know what you’re going to get. And this free agent class is light on proven sluggers; we’ve seen multi-year deals with eight-figure AAVs distributed to the likes of Jeimer Candelario and Mitch Garver — players who can be better than Hoskins at their best, but with question marks about what their ultimate floor is.

So why isn’t Hoskins in line for a similar deal? Well, he might be, but his options are limited. Leaving aside the fact that he didn’t play last year, and will be 31 on St. Patrick’s Day, his glove is a problem. The Phillies made the ultimate determination that his bat is worth the occasional bobbled throw. (Though the winter of 2022-23 saw much relitigation of Hoskins’ failure to prevent the game-winning run in Game 5 of the World Series, which ended up being his last meaningful act in a Phillies uniform.)

Hoskins should get a starting job somewhere, not just because of his track record but because the 13-man pitching staff doesn’t leave much room for a dedicated right-handed bench bat without a defensive home. And therein lies the issue: Hoskins is a DH who’s usable but not ideal at first base.

And there just aren’t that many jobs for a player like that. Not even with the reputationally defense-agnostic Phillies, who might have kept Hoskins if he’d offered even an iota of defensive flexibility. In theory, there are 60 full-time jobs for first basemen and designated hitters, but most of those are occupied.

Below are the incumbent starters for each team at first base and DH, according to RosterResource. All of this is subject to change, of course. For example, while I was writing this post, the Cubs traded for Michael Busch, who ought to see at least some time at Hoskins’ positions in the majors this year. But by my count, 41 of these jobs are spoken for. Either the incumbent is ensconced into the position by contract or prospect status, or is just flat-out better than Hoskins right now.

Five teams have a player listed at DH who’s mostly there because someone has to fill the spot on the depth chart, and who will likely contribute at the major league level at another position. Those are marked in blue. Five others could have openings if they could move the player currently taking up that spot. (I keep getting spam calls on my cellphone, and I’m pretty sure it’s Reds POBO Nick Krall trying to trade me Jonathan India, even though I don’t actually have a baseball team to put him on.) These spots are marked in red. The remaining nine openings are in gold:

All told, this makes 17 out of 30 teams with a theoretical need for Hoskins. In reality, that number is much lower. Even if the Reds do manage to trade India, Krall has said his team is probably out of the free agent market. I don’t think the Astros are going to offload José Abreu, and while Hoskins would probably be an upgrade over Avisaíl García in Miami or Ty France in Seattle, it’s unlikely that either of those teams would move an existing contract for a $10 million-plus free agent who does a lot of the same things.

The Nationals, Pirates, and Rays are probably not a fit unless Hoskins’ price comes way down from the low eight-figure range. And as much as I’d love to see the Orioles do anything whatsoever to supplement their once-in-a-franchise-history whale fall of up-the-middle talent, I won’t hold my breath on them signing Hoskins.

So I’ll mention four teams that I’d like to see go after Hoskins, some of which have been linked with him on the rumor mill, some not.

The first is the Cubs. Before the Busch trade, first base in that lineup was probably the most glaring single positional weakness on any would-be playoff contender, and I would’ve bet money on Hoskins ending up there eventually. Acquiring Busch mitigates that weakness, and it’s perfectly fine to go into the season with him as the starting first baseman, but he’s a 26-year-old rookie who lit up Triple-A last year, but struggled in a 27-game audition with the Dodgers.

But the risk in starting a rookie first baseman, plus Christopher Morel’s ability to play elsewhere on the diamond, does not necessarily close the door on Hoskins as a DH. More than that, the Cubs could add Hoskins and still have enough money left under the first tax threshold to go out and get one of the stars remaining on the free agent market. I still think this makes sense as a landing spot.

The Rangers would have to go into the tax to sign Hoskins, but they just won the World Series by balling out in free agency, so the iron has never been hotter. More to the point, Texas has lost its two most-used designated hitters — Garver and Robbie Grossman — to free agency and to this point has not replaced them. With the rest of the World Series-winning lineup intact, and Evan Carter playing left field full-time in the majors, designated hitter is the only remaining hole in the Rangers’ starting lineup. And while many teams would use DH as a rotational spot to spell starters, the Rangers don’t really have an inspiring bench. Hoskins has been linked with Toronto more than Texas this offseason, but I think he makes more sense with the Rangers than the Blue Jays.

The last two potential fits are even more speculative. The first is Milwaukee; the Brewers are currently in line to start Jake Bauers, acquired from the Yankees in a trade at the non-tender deadline in November, at first base. It feels like Bauers has been around forever, as he debuted with the Rays in 2018 and has been traded for half the players in the league since then. But the next time Bauers puts up a wRC+ of 100 or better in a season of any length will be the first.

That’s just not a tenable solution. Over the past few years, the Brewers have cycled through some fun but limited first base options, like Rowdy Tellez and Daniel Vogelbach. Hoskins would represent an upgrade on that type of player while retaining the avuncular and otherwise bratwursty vibe. It’d be a great fit, but it’d require the Brewers pursuing a fairly big-name free agent.

The last option that intrigues me is a little sacrilegious. But the Mets are already way over the last meaningful tax threshold, their current plan at DH is DJ Stewart in some kind of a platoon situation, and Alonso’s name has been swirling in trade rumors for a year. Come on. You’re not at least a little intrigued by the possibility of a Rhys Hoskins heel turn?

Maybe this is a little too much of a deep dive on speculating about one specific free agent, but there’s a larger point about the paradoxical nature of a free agent who lives and dies with his bat. Teams will look at the prospect of spending on an established first base-DH type like Hoskins, or Josh Bell, and balk. Because the job looks easy. Any sufficiently barrel-chested dude can go up there, draw a couple walks, and slug 25 or 30 home runs. Why would you pay $10 million or $15 million a year for someone who can do that, but isn’t going to be an MVP-type middle-of-the-order anchor?

It’s a fair question, and it’s limited the market for sluggers like Hoskins. But when a team tries to make a Hoskins out of spare parts and misses, the downside can be substantial, especially for a potential contender. Arguably even more so for a small-market contender — like Milwaukee — that needs to find every home run it can under the couch cushions.

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, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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John Wickmember
3 months ago

I’m curious what he will get (I assume teams will go two years, maybe one will go three), and what he wants (does he want a one-year deal to re-establish value, or a deal with team/player options after the first year).

I don’t think the Brewers call is speculative at all, especially if the outlay is for a year or two. They’ve made a few pillow contract signings and while this isn’t quite the same, it fits the same team-building model where they are willing to spend to improve if the outlay is short-term.

3 months ago
Reply to  John Wick

I am guessing the Brewers would aim for a a pillow deal with an unlikely-to-be-exercise mutual option rather than the 2-year with an opt-out. The latter is a better contract for the player because it protects against not coming back all the way in year 1, and exposes the team to a bit more risk. A team like the Cubs might be more willing to assume that risk than the Brewers.

But the Brewers need somewhere between 2 and 4 above-average bats to have a credible offense, so if Hoskins is the odd man of the Hoskins / Soler / Turner / Martinez / Belt / Pederson mix then I would imagine that they would be interested in a pillow deal.

3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Musical chairs and at least 2 of the 6 hitters you mentioned will not have a spot. There are not 6 teams looking for a DH / first baseman. These guys better sign quickly.

3 months ago
Reply to  John Wick

According to the FanGraphs payroll pages, the Brewers ended 2023 with $126MM in player salary, and have an estimated $105MM for 2024 as things stand right now. By those numbers, and because they have a lot of guys making the minimum for the next couple years, they should have plenty of room to sign Hoskins. It’s a matter of whether they want to use 2024 as a soft rebuild and see what they have in their young guys, or try to compete in the NL Central, which is definitely improving. If they opt for the former, maybe they just let Tyler Black try to prove he can play 1B.