There are moments in the history of franchises that alter the trajectory for years to come. In today’s modern baseball economy, often players that teams do or don’t sign end up shaping that course either directly or indirectly. Over the years I have developed a theory called The Jayson Werth Effect – based on what impact the signing of Jayson Werth had for the Washington Nationals seven years ago. Now teams inevitably go through a rebuilding period (even the Yankees did for a year or two) before contending again.
Yet with no salary cap in baseball but still operating in a market economy, free agent signings matter more to some teams than others. Recently, the Padres made such a move with the signing of Eric Hosmer. I will briefly describe what I see as the Jayson Werth Effect, show several examples, then explain why this signing is that for the Padres, not the flurry of trades in the Winter of 2014 that both helped to sink this franchise to where it has played and began the filling in process that has led to a rejuvenated farm system that helped to spur on the Hosmer signing.
So Jayson Werth, the guy with that long beard who ironically just likely played his final game with the Nationals – when he got a standing ovation. That reaction would’ve been unimaginable when it first went down, with shouts going out about how they overpaid for him. For younger readers, you might not remember that when the Expos moved to Washington to become the Nationals in 2005 they were not very good. The team was owned by MLB for a year or two and though in 2002 the Expos finished second in the National League East, they still finished 19 games behind the Atlanta Braves. From 2005-2010 they only finished not in last place once, and that was fourth place. Then, in the Winter after the 2010 season, they gave a 7-year, $126M deal to Jayson Werth fresh off an 8th place MVP finish and winning a World Series Ring with the Phillies in 2008.
Many were surprised/mad about the deal – but the Nationals showed they were ready to win. Of course, they had drafted Stephen Strasburg #1 and Bryce Harper #1 in 2009 and 2010 respectively, but they needed someone to anchor the middle of the order along with homegrown talent Ryan Zimmerman. A veteran who had won before. In 2011 the first year of the Werth deal, they finished 1 game short of .500. Since then they have won 4 NL East titles and finished 2nd the other two seasons. Not bad. It is this “overpayment” of a veteran to make a statement to the team itself and future free agents with a ripe farm system on the way that I call the Jayson Werth Effect.
Many think these signings can keep franchises from spending any more money and weigh them down. Certainly, this does happen like in the case of Albert Pujols and the Angels. Yet not so with Werth and won’t for the Padres as I will argue later. Matt Snyder of CBS Sports points out that the Nationals were 22nd in payroll when they signed Werth and 9th last year, very respectable for winning the NL East 4 times in those 7 years. Furthermore AFTER adding Werth – and I would add in large part BECAUSE they signed Werth – they wooed Max Scherzer (7-years, $210 Million), signed Strasburg to a 7-year, $175 Million extension, Gio Gonzalez to a $65 Million deal and Ryan Zimmerman to a 6-year, $100 Million extension. Snyder summarizes the intangible pull Werth created about DC with this statement:
“Something we can’t measure is the overall psyche of the ballclub that’s used to being in last place all of a sudden signing a big-name guy to a huge-money deal. Take note of the Nationals being in the bottom third of payroll and all of a sudden they went nuts for this guy. That has to help matters in the clubhouse, even if it’s just a little bit and is something we can’t measure.”
We have seen other teams make similar moves since then. Even the Dodgers, who had been languishing under poor ownership, made the biggest trade in franchise history in the summer of 2012 for Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett. They had been losing for a couple years amid ownership change – and that trade signified that this group, led by Magic Johnson who bought the team in March of 2012, was going to spend money and make the big moves. They finished 2nd place that season but have won the NL West every year since. They made the World Series for the first time since 1988 in 2017 and are poised to finish the job this year once more.
The Kansas City Royals had been building up their minor league system with quality players for years but hadn’t seen the success they wanted. Until the winter of 2012, they traded their top prospect Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for James Shields and Wade Davis. The Royals would, of course, make the World Series in 2014 thanks in large part to James Shields and would win the World Series in 2015 with Wade Davis closing it out.
The Cubs “we are going for it” move was actually a managerial one. When Theo Epstein heard that Maddon might be interested in changing teams, he fired popular manager Rick Renteria to get Maddon in the winter of 2014. The Cubs would win it all of course in 2016 for the first time since 1908 (ending the longest drought in baseball history).
The Mariners signed Robinson Cano to the largest contract in franchise history back in December of 2013 – a 10-year, $240M deal. It has not paid off for them (yet?) both in terms of attracting larger stars or in helping them make the playoffs. For better or worse there are still 5 years left on the deal. Cano himself has made the All-Star 3 out of the last 4 seasons including a career high in home runs in 2016 so don’t blame his performance.
So back to the Padres and Hosmer. Eight years and $144M, the largest contract in franchise history. In fact, nearly double the extension they just gave Wil Myers. The skeptics will criticize the Padres for the 8-year portion – but there is an opt-out option after 5-years and the contract is reportedly front-loaded. So they will be theoretically be paying him the most for his most productive years – not like some of the other big long-term contracts you see being traded around like Matt Kemp.
Padres writer Tom Krasovic says the Hosmer deal reminds him when the Padres signed Wally Joyner back in 1996 (also from the Royals) to be the veteran presence to calm down Ken Caminiti. His defense helped them, his leadership helped, and he chipped in offensively too. They were 1998 National League champions. The Hosmer deal is different though – and more important for this franchise. This isn’t the mad dash trading of 2014. The Padres have a solid #3 ranked farm system. The Major League Level isn’t devoid of talent. This is a strategic move to acquire an important piece of the puzzle with money to spend next season. The Hosmer contract is now what behavioral economists would call a sunk cost, and they can move on to focus on what is next.
MLB.com writer Mike Petriello points out this deal for what it is: The Padres just made their team better, all it cost was money — money they can afford — and you can’t wait for the time to be right to add every part you’ll need at once. The Padres are still in the bottom 10 in payroll and have flexibility. The Great Winter of 2014 is all gone now except for Myers. Gone are James Shields, Derek Norris, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Craig Kimbrel. Many starters on the Padres are returns from trading those guys: Carlos Asuaje and Manuel Margot (Kimbrel). In line is Fernando Tatis Jr, who they got for dumping James Shields and who is now the MLB 8th ranked prospect.
Their outfield picture is set now assuming growth and production with Myers, Margot, and Renfroe. First base is locked down with Hosmer, 2nd with Asuaje, and catcher with Austin Hedges. They signed SS Freddy Galvis knowing that Tatis should arrive in the next year or two or Luis Arias who could shift to 3rd for Asuaje.
Up on the docket next? Pitching. Some interesting names are on the free agent docket after 2018: Dallas Keuchel, Drew Pomeranz, Patrick Corbin, Garrett Richards, Matt Harvey in the 30 and under class. Adam Wainwright, Josh Tomlin, Marco Estrada among others in the over 30. Sign one or two of those along with some pitching development and this team (the Padres) just might be able to do something sooner than later.
All that to say how Hosmer performs certainly matters. Having him and Myers together in the middle of the lineup should be a dynamic lefty/righty combo. True – Hosmer isn’t the 40 home run hitter of the Adrian Gonzalez Padres era, but with any luck, he can be a 2012 Yonder Alonso doubles machine (without the PED use) and provide consistency and contact that Wil Myers struggled with last season after a tremendous 2016. Yet the Padres were also clear Hosmer is here for the leadership that isn’t coming with Wil Myers.
Padres Chairman Ron Fowler had this to say as first reported by Jerry Crasnick:
“We’re hoping Eric is that guy. Myers has a lot of qualities, but he frankly does not want to be the leader in the clubhouse. That’s just not in his DNA…Eric will protect him in the lineup, first of all. And he’ll take more of a leadership position, which is more natural for him in the clubhouse than it was for Myers.”
Does one player really make all that big of a difference? Or is this just wishful thinking from a Padres fan? First of all – Matt Kelly agrees with me on the whole Jayson Werth idea. Second of all, no longer can fans say that the Padres don’t try. They went out and snagged a major free agent who has played consistently and won. This is not some gamble that some 37-year-old player has one more year of greatness. The distinction is huge that this is the next piece of the puzzle – not the final piece.