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A Brief History of Why Lavish Spending on First Basemen is Bad

I’d like to talk to you today about why it’s a bad idea to give a first baseman a lot of money for a long period of time. Obviously, this has a lot to do with Eric Hosmer, but before we talk about him, I’d like to talk about Ryan Howard.

In 2010, Ryan Howard signed a five-year, $125 million extension with the Phillies, tacked onto the three-year, $54 million extension he’d signed barely 14 months before. Given that he’d produced back-to-back seasons of All-Star caliber, fringe-MVP candidate results, and given that he was still in his late-20s-to-early-30s, this—at the time—seemed like a reasonable move for Philadelphia, especially as this was the glorious heyday of Charlie Manuel and contention and going to the postseason.

The 2009 season had gone swimmingly—45 homers, 141 RBI, .279 average—and 2010 was pretty similar, albeit slightly dipped as numbers go (31 homers, 108 RBI, .276/.353/.505). Not to become a retro-grade TED talker, but FanGraphs defines any OPS above .800 as above-average. At $22.375 million AAV that’s a half-decent ROI.

Except that he only had one more season of above-.800 OPS left in him before becoming a replacement-level player and salary albatross for five entire seasons, in addition to missing large swaths of time during the last two seasons, he could hardly be described as anything other than washed.

The comparisons between Eric Hosmer and Ryan Howard essentially stop at “left-handed hitting first-basemen.” Howard was a masher of the highest order, while Hosmer makes his living grinding out high-average, high-caliber defensive seasons. And while the Phillies bought out the final three seasons of Howard’s arbitration before his age-29 season—meaning he didn’t get Capital-P Paid until he was 30—Hosmer turns 28 next week and is set to make all of the money, ever, should the (mega-despised,  ridiculously cash-flush franchise who may want to add a first baseman for poops and grins) elect to begin filling a Scrooge McDuckian swimming pool full of money for him.

But the simple fact of the matter is that first basemen don’t exactly age well, yet seem to get big-money contracts everyone begins regretting before the ink dries. Sometimes it’s obviously stupid—everyone knew giving 32-year old Albert Pujols a 10-year contract was dumb. But sometimes even the most well-intentioned deals blow up on everyone. Observe:

Joe Mauer, Twins – Call this cheating if you want; at the time, Mauer was a catcher, and as a native Minnesotan of Bunyan-esque folklore, he was never likely to leave. He was coming off an MVP season and was an All-Star in three of his first five seasons—with little injury to show for it.

Mauer has stayed largely healthy since signing his eight-year, $184-million deal… but he’s not reached near the same heights. He’s made three All-Star teams in those eight seasons, but none since moving full-time to first base, and has hit 65 home runs—total—during that time. At least he’s also striking out more.

The deal ends next year. I assume the Twins would like their very own folk hero back, but it probably won’t be at $23 million per anymore.

Prince Fielder, Tigers – Tempted to give this an incomplete because injury robbed Prince of some final, one hopes even perhaps productive, seasons, but facts are facts and the fact is Prince was heading hard toward Howard territory.

After breaking into the bigs with the Brewers, Fielder signed a nine-year, $214-million contract with Detroit prior to his age-27 season, produced two All-Star caliber seasons—and so petrified the Tigers with a late-season swoon in 2013 that they traded him to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler and $30 million.

He played 42 games in Texas before everything in his neck went to hell. He wrung one more good season (23 homers, 98 RBI, .305/.378/.463) out of his body in 2015 before retiring at 32 in 2016 after a second spinal fusion surgery.

Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox – Gonzalez, a slick-fielding first baseman, was traded from San Diego to Boston after his age-28 season and promptly handed a seven-year, $158 million deal. It would’ve cost the Red Sox nothing to keep Anthony Rizzo, but I’m sure there are no regrets.

During this era, when Boston spent money like it was going to rot, the Red Sox routinely gave enormous contracts to players who didn’t work out. In 2012, Gonzalez was the supposed cherry in a salary dump to the Dodgers—in exchange for taking on the contracts of Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford, the Dodgers got Gonzalez for James Loney and a bucket of pig urine.

Must’ve worked out, right, given that the Dodgers are in the World Series? Well, Gonzalez didn’t have much to do with that. He remained mostly good in a “25 homers, 90 RBI, .275 average” kind of way, but forgot how to draw a walk and was left off the playoff roster due to back troubles—not unheard of, given he’s 35 years old. Dave Roberts expects an “Adrian Gonzalez-type season” next year, which probably doesn’t mean what it used to and certainly isn’t worth $22.357 million.

Mark Teixeira, Yankees – Likely the deal most often referenced when one feels a little uneasy about handing out big contracts to free-agents. Tex’s eight-year, $180 million deal looked great for about a season and then swiftly dropped from perennial All-Star to barely serviceable starter.

Sure, this was at least partially due to injury, which robbed him of at least 35 games in his final five seasons in New York. But after 2011—save a resurrection season in 2015—Teixeira was simply fine. And you do not pay $23 million for fine.

And he also compares favorably to Hosmer, given his fielding prowess (five Gold Gloves) and the likelihood that he was underrated early in his career; Tex and Hosmer will each have made one All-Star appearance prior to the first big contract.

The average of these four contracts is eight years and $184 million (Mauer’s precise numbers, incidentally). It’s inconceivable to think of the Royals giving that to Eric Hosmer… but it’s not inconceivable that someone will. That’s the thing about all of the aforementioned contracts—it only takes one GM feeling one piece away to push his contract into the stratosphere.

Would it hurt the Royals to lose Hosmer? Of course—his heir apparent, Nick Pratto, is light years away at this point, even if he’s got talent oozing out his ears. But it wouldn’t kill them in the same way an onerous, payroll-restricting extension would. Look at the aforementioned five (six if you count Gonzalez’s stints in Boston and Los Angeles) teams—the Yankees, Red Sox/Dodgers and Tigers tote four of MLB’s top-five payrolls. The Twins just ascended into relevance this season after years in the wilderness and the Phillies struggles can be directly traced to Howard’s contract and the impossible situation the front office was in after it was signed.

You look at the Royals, and which situation is more familiar—being able to spend, spend, spend… or being forced to manage payroll, take calculated risks and mitigate the chance of the fatal mistake? Spending a huge chunk of payroll on Eric Hosmer could be a fine investment, but history makes me leery.

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2 comments on “A Brief History of Why Lavish Spending on First Basemen is Bad”

Jeremy

Agreed. Even IF Hoz stays and plays really well, would that make the Royals a contender? I seriously doubt it. That with the monster contract and I just can’t see how it makes any sense.

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