January 4: Hosmer and the Cubs are now in agreement, per Jesse Rogers of ESPN.
Hosmer, 33, had the good fortune of having the best season of his career just as he entered free agency. He hit .318/.385/.498 in 2017, his last season with the Royals, leading to a wRC+ of 135 that indicates he was 35% better than the league average hitter. He was worth 3.8 wins above replacement that year in the eyes of FanGraphs, with that mark and his wRC+ from that season still standing out as his career best.
Prior to the 2018 season, Hosmer signed an eight-year, $144MM deal with the Padres that went beyond most predictions. That overpay became even more stark once Hosmer’s production dipped with his new team. Since signing that deal, he’s hit .265/.325/.409 for a wRC+ of 100, exactly league average. Though he has four Gold Glove awards, advanced defensive metrics are far less enamoured with his work in the field. All of Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating and Outs Above Average consider him to be a below-average first baseman for his career. Taken all together, he’s essentially been a replacement-level player over the past five seasons, with his fWAR tally at 0.3 in that time.
Given his large contract and diminished performance, Hosmer’s name has popped up in trade talks for years. The Padres weren’t able to line anything up until this summer. They originally included Hoz in the Juan Soto deal but he used his limited no-trade clause to block that from happening. Luke Voit was put into that deal instead but the Friars then flipped him to Boston along with a couple of prospects, with pitching prospect Jay Groome going the other way. San Diego had to agree to eat all of Hosmer’s remaining salary except for the league minimum in order to get that done.
The Sox promoted young prospect Triston Casas down the stretch and were encouraged enough by his debut to release Hosmer after just a couple of months in Fenway. That left Hosmer free to sign with any team for the league minimum, with the Padres still on the hook for the three remaining years of the deal. The Cubs have seemingly stepped up to be that team. The fit is a fairly logical one for the Cubs, since there’s no real risk for them. If he can make any sort of turnaround towards his previous form, it would be a nice bonus. If not, they’ve made no commitment to him and can simply release him again whenever they want.
The Cubs had no real everyday first baseman in 2022, with the playing time scattered between Alfonso Rivas, Frank Schwindel, P.J. Higgins, Patrick Wisdom and some other role players. Aside from Wisdom, who can also play third base, they all had disappointing years and are no longer on the team’s roster. Higgins and Rivas were both designated for assignment last month while Schwindel is heading to Japan this year.
Arguably, the best in-house option the club has is prospect Matt Mervis. An undrafted free agent who had drawn little attention this time a year ago, he shot up prospect rankings with a monster showing in 2022. He began the season in High-A and completely mashed, producing a batting line of .350/.389/.650, wRC+ of 189. He got bumped to Double-A and hit .300/.370/.596 for a wRC+ of 148. After moving to Triple-A, his line was .297/.383/.593, 152 wRC+. Incredibly, his walk rate improved from 4.6% to 8.7% to 10.4% as he moved up the ladder, while his strikeout rate fell from 24.1% to 20% to 14.6%. The Cubs decided to keep the good times rolling by sending him to the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .262/.324/.590 in 17 games.
Though Hosmer’s addition blocks Mervis from the everyday job in a sense, it also shouldn’t prevent Mervis from seizing it at some point. As mentioned, Hosmer can be jettisoned at any time with no real repercussions for the Cubs. If Mervis seems like the better option, either in Spring Training or later, it should be a fairly easy swap to make. If Mervis struggles to carry forward the momentum from his excellent 2022, Hosmer gives the club a passable veteran to hold down the fort.
The Orioles were also connected to Hosmer since his release from Boston, but they will have to look elsewhere, assuming the deal with the Cubs gets finalized. The O’s have been looking for lefty bats to work into their first base/corner outfield/designated hitter mix and seem to be focused on low-cost options. They’ve signed Nomar Mazara and Franchy Cordero to minor league deals and also claimed Lewin Díaz off waivers, though they later designated Díaz for assignment and traded him to the Braves. A similar situation played out with Jake Cave, who was claimed off waivers from the Twins but then lost to the Phillies on a subsequent waiver claim. Earlier today, the O’s acquired Ryan O’Hearn from the Royals, adding another option into the mix.