Royals Sign First Baseman for $140 Million Less Than Padres

Even if you’ve been living under a rock or taking a between-jobs vacation, you’re probably aware that the Royals lost their longtime first baseman and franchise staple, Eric Hosmer, to free agency. Earlier this month, the Padres signed Ol’ Hos to an eight-year, $144 million deal, no doubt because their new head of Research and Development lobbied for the move (even after having previously declared him one of the winter’s free-agent landmines).

On Wednesday, the Royals filled their positional vacancy by committing $140.5 million less than the Padres did, inking Lucas Duda to a one-year, $3.5 million deal with plate-appearance-based incentives — $100,000 for reaching 300 PA, and for each 25 PA interval up to 600 PA — possibly yielding another $1.3 million.

While Duda and Hosmer are both listed at 6-foot-4, swing left-handed, and crossed paths in the 2015 World Series — most notably when the latter’s wild throw home in the ninth inning of Game 5 allowed the former to score the game-tying run — there are obviously some differences between the two. Hosmer, a 2008 first-round pick out of a Florida high school, has dark hair but is viewed within the industry as something of a golden boy, while Duda, a 2007 seventh-round pick out of the University of Southern California, is blond but seems to have been treated like the proverbial red-headed stepchild.

Where Hosmer, who’s headed into his age-28 season, owns four Gold Gloves and has made an All-Star team, Duda is headed into his age-32 season and hasn’t won any hardware. Hosmer is an iron man who’s played at least 152 games in a season six times in the past seven years, including 162 last year and 478 out of a possible 486 over the past three. Duda has reached the 152-game mark only once (2014) and has averaged 103 games over the past three years due to back and elbow woes. Hosmer hits a lot of ground balls, tends to use the whole field, doesn’t strike out or walk all that much, and owns a career batting average of .284. Duda, meanwhile, is a fly-ball-oriented pull hitter who walks and whiffs with more frequency and has hit just .242.

For all of that, the two players aren’t as far apart as either that brief summary or their guaranteed future earnings suggest. Hosmer’s career batting line of .284/.342/.439 is good for a 111 wRC+, while Duda’s .242/.340/.457 line crunches down to a 120 wRC+. Both have tattooed righties well enough over the course of their careers (123 wRC+ for Hosmer, 132 for Duda) and neither has hit a lick against lefties (87 wRC+ for Hosmer, 84 for Duda). The Royals tended to keep their guy in the lineup against southpaws nonetheless: 32.8% of Hosmer’s career plate appearances have come against lefties, compared to 24.0% for Duda. Presumably, some of that is because the Royals placed a high value on having Hosmer’s glove at first base; while he may get high marks from observers, both Defensive Runs Saved (-21 runs) and Ultimate Zone Rating (-29) show him well into the red. Duda, despite some hilariously godawful work in the outfield corners earlier in his career (-38 DRS, -49 UZR), is nonetheless a thoroughly competent first baseman (+9 DRS, +1 UZR).

All of which is to say that the separation between the two has more to do with perception than reality, admittedly amplified by the wide gap between their 2017 performances. In a season of record-setting home-run totals, both matched their career highs (25 for Hosmer, 30 for Duda), with Hosmer additionally setting new career highs in all three slash stats (.318/.385/.498), wRC+ (135), and WAR (4.1). The last figure is the latest manifestation of a very Saberhagen-esque career pattern: while he’s been pretty good in odd-numbered years (10.8 WAR in 2013, -15, and -17), he’s turned into a replacement-level mess in even-numbered ones (-1.8 WAR in 2012, -14, and -16).

Duda, for his part, hit a combined .217/.322/.496/113 wRC+, with a career-worst batting average overshadowing his career-best slugging percentage, and a Rob Deer-like post-trade stint in Tampa Bay (.175/.285/.444, with a 49% three-true-outcome rate) obscuring a solid but injury-abbreviated swan song with the Mets (.246/.347/.532). He finished with just 1.1 WAR, that on top of a dreadful 0.1 in 2016 (albeit in just 47 games). In 2014-15, though — the Royals’ heyday, remember? — he outproduced Hosmer, 6.2 WAR to 3.5.

At the outset of the offseason, much was made of agent Scott Boras’s efforts to justify a $200 million contract for Hosmer. In one of his infamous three-ring binders, he cited his client’s media skills, leadership skills, and bilinguality as major assets; tried to quantify such intangibles; and threw around the term “prestige value.” I’m not dismissing the value of all of that so much as I’m noting the intensity of the marketing effort. Hosmer’s popularity and leadership make him a fine poster boy for the Padres’ rebuilding program, somebody who might put fannies in seats while the team slowly turns its fortunes around.

Duda, by comparison, has a reputation as quiet and somewhat camera-shy, though after he was traded, former Mets teammate Neil Walker described him as “a great guy and great teammate,” while Curtis Granderson tried to make him a star on Instagram. But it’s likely that nobody buys a ticket specifically to see Lucas Duda. The Beverly Hills Sports Council, which represents him, didn’t put out a three-ring binder on his behalf. No word on whether they priced out space for him on the side of a milk carton.

Even with Duda’s recent struggles and four-year age disadvantage, the 2018 projections indicate little difference between the two where 2018 is concerned. In our Depth Charts, Duda is forecast for 1.5 WAR in 525 PA, Hosmer 2.1 WAR in 630 PA. Prorate the two to the same number of plate appearances and the gap is roughly three runs. The Royals, in the wake of losing Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and (probably) Mike Moustakas, are projected for just 69 wins. In a market full of low-cost, power-hitting first base options — Matt Adams, Yonder Alonso, Adam Lind, Logan Morrison, Mike Napoli, Mark Reynolds – they didn’t have to spend much, so they did not.

Duda is merely the first in a series of placeholders until 2017 first-round pick Nick Pratto is ready for the majors, with minor leaguers such as Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn awaiting their turns sometime in between. If Duda remains in the upright position, he’ll be a bargain, and it says something about the threadbare Kansas City offense that his 1.5 WAR is actually the third highest among the team’s position players behind only Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield, though if he’s even that good, there’s a high probability he’ll be part of an outbound transaction come late July. Given the way that Kaufman Stadium can suppress left-handed power, it may not be the most ideal landing spot for the big slugger, but this one probably won’t be staying long. Yes, the Duda abides.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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4 years ago

Poor Dave can’t even defend himself.

This is great.

By the title I thought this was a Jeff Sullivan article.

4 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

That’s OK. What are the odds he reads this?

4 years ago
Reply to  Joser

He’s probably bored and 100% he reads it

4 years ago
Reply to  southie

Once again the lack of a sarcasm tag defeats me.