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Brewers divert from usual free-agent approach with opportunistic Rhys Hoskins signing

Hoskins differs from most Brewers’ signings in recent years, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing

Philadelphia Phillies v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

It was shaping up to be another quiet offseason in Milwaukee, but the Brewers turned that narrative on its head by reportedly agreeing to a two-year, $34 million deal with first baseman Rhys Hoskins.

Hoskins is Milwaukee’s highest-profile signing since the club inked Yasmani Grandal to a surprise one-year, $18.25 million deal before the 2019 season.

In some ways, this acquisition is similar. Hoskins has been one of baseball’s better offensive first basemen since his debut, and the Brewers jumped at an opportunity to land him on a short-term deal. From his rookie year of 2017 through his last active season of 2022, Hoskins ranked 10th among qualified first basemen in wRC+ (126), seventh in home runs (148), and 11th in fWAR (11.6).

In many ways, however, the deal deviates from what we’ve come to expect from the Brewers under David Stearns and now Matt Arnold.

The Brewers have spent in the past. Stearns signed Lorenzo Cain to an $80 million deal in 2018, a franchise high for a free agent. He inked Christian Yelich to a record $215 million extension in 2020. Last month, Arnold signed super-prospect Jackson Chourio to an $82 million deal before he ever played a game in the big leagues.

Those deals all have something in common: they were given to multi-tooled players who could impact the game in various ways. Cain was a solid bat, but most of his impact came from his elite defense and baserunning. Yelich is a similarly excellent baserunner, and when the Brewers extended him, he could hit for both average and power while holding his own defensively as a corner outfielder. Chourio possesses an explosive blend of power, bat control, speed, and defense. Even Grandal was the most well-rounded catcher in baseball at the time of his signing.

Hoskins will have one job in Milwaukee: slug. He’s strictly a first baseman, where he has received poor grades defensively (-7 DRS, -11 OAA). He could spend a good chunk of time as a designated hitter. He has posted high on-base percentages in the past but adopted a more aggressive approach in his two most recent seasons.

Hoskins is essentially a one-tool player, and the Brewers have not valued that type in recent years. Committing up to $34 million to one is an unusual step for a club that prefers to spread its payroll around to build deep rosters that excel at pitching and defense. Players like Cain and Grandal could contribute in other ways if their offense declined. If Hoskins doesn’t slug, he carries little to no value and becomes dead money.

Such bust potential is real. Hoskins is coming off ACL surgery after tearing the ligament in camp with the Philadelphia Phillies last spring and missing the entire season. Any lingering effects on his knee can hamper his productivity.

The Brewers have gambled on veteran hitters rebounding from injuries before (see Jesse Winker and Brian Anderson), but those players were on cheaper one-year contracts. Hoskins required a player decision for a second year to sign. He’ll opt out unless he struggles in 2024, which could put the Brewers on the hook for another $17 million in 2025 for a non-productive player.

That doesn’t make Hoskins a questionable signing. If there was ever a time for the Brewers to explore unfamiliar territory in free agency, it was this offseason with this player.

If he’s fully recovered, Hoskins is precisely what the Brewers need. Milwaukee ranked 25th in baseball last year with 165 home runs, and their inability to drive the ball played a role in their quick exit in the National League Wild Card Series. Excluding his 50-game rookie year and the shortened 2020 season, Hoskins has hit at least 27 home runs in every year of his career.

Hoskins is not a standard Brewers signing. He costs more than the Brewers typically prefer to pay a player with his profile. Still, the front office recognized a need, saw a chance to sign Hoskins for less than he would have made after a healthy season, and stepped past some of its usual spending reservations to make an opportunistic signing. After repeatedly telling fans that the team plans to compete in 2024, Arnold and Mark Attanasio have backed it up.