Last year, on a lovely Thursday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium, the afterglow of a victory against the Indians that ended a 7-game losing streak was interrupted just minutes after the game ended, when the Royals announced that Trey Hillman had been fired.
Once again this year, the Royals chose the sleepy aftermath of a Thursday home game – just like last year, it was the annual “School Day at the K” promotion that brought in a crowd of almost 30,000 – to announce another thunderbolt. This time, it was Kila Ka’aihue getting the axe, and this time, the news wasn’t about who was departing Kansas City so much as about who was arriving.
(And by happy circumstance, both moves came just hours before my radio show. If you want to listen to my immediate reaction to the news, you can listen to the podcast of the show at 810 WHB’s website – look under “additional programming”.)
With any luck, we may look back at the day that Trey Hillman was fired as the nadir of the Dayton Moore Era, the day a clueless manager running a listless team going nowhere was shown the door, and the day the Battleship U.S.S. Royal started to turn around. And with any luck, we may look back at Thursday’s announcement as the day the battleship perfected its bearings, and opened its throttle.
Eric Hosmer is now a Royal, the future is now the present, and The Process is now being judged by results at the major-league level.
The excitement at Kauffman Stadium for Hosmas yesterday rivals that for any Royals prospect debut in a generation. Alex Gordon’s debut may have been equally anticipated, but his debut came on Opening Day, with a crowd that would have been a sellout under any circumstances. With respect to a mid-season call-up, Zack Greinke’s home debut (his first start was on the road) drew 30,614 to Kauffman Stadium on a Friday night – but there was a week’s notice that he’d be starting that night. Johnny Damon debuted on a Saturday afternoon at the K, on August 12, 1995. He was accompanied from Omaha by Michael Tucker, who had made the team out of spring training but was demoted mid-season, and a one-time prospect named Brent Cookson who had hit .401 in Omaha. That game drew only 20,572.
Last night’s game drew 30,690, and according to the Royals, about 10,000 of those tickets were sold on the day of the game. When Jeff Passan writes that Hosmer’s debut was the most anticipated debut in Kansas City since Bo Jackson, he’s not exaggerating.
The hyperbolic reaction to Hosmer’s debut – “Eric Hosmer” was one of the ten most-tweeted terms in the world last night, and even Bill Simmons got in on #hosmerfacts (“Justin Bieber wears an Eric Hosmer backpack”) – is not simply about Hosmer. Six weeks ago, it wasn’t even a consensus that Hosmer was the best prospect in the Royals’ system. The majority of the Top 100 Prospect lists I saw had Mike Moustakas slightly ahead of him. I disagreed with that assessment because of concerns about Moustakas’ plate discipline and ability to hit left-handers, concerns that are being borne out in Omaha right now, but I wasn’t certain whether Hosmer or Wil Myers was the better prospect.
The celebration that we saw at the ballpark last night over Hosmer’s debut was not simply about what he did in the last six weeks to cement himself as the best prospect in the system. Which isn’t to discount his performance in Omaha, which quite frankly put him in the discussion as the best prospect in all of baseball. The hype about Hosmer started in spring training, when everyone wanted to get a good look at this supposedly-historic cache of talent the Royals were building. No one impressed more than Hosmer, who according to multiple scouts was even better than advertised. Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks proclaimed him ready for the major leagues right then and there.
Hosmer then went to Omaha and proved that assessment true. You can write “small sample size” til the cows come home, but Hosmer hit .439 in Omaha. He drew 19 walks in just 29 games, for an OBP of .525. He hit .500 against lefties with all three of his homers. And somehow, he was just heating up: in his last ten games with the Storm Chasers, he hit .538 (21-for-39) with nine walks and a .612 OBP, a number I’ve only ever seen associated with Barry Bonds before. Here’s a game-by-game breakdown of how many times he reached base safely in his last eight games: 3, 4, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 4.
I spoke with a scout about ten days ago who had just seen Omaha in action, and who wasn’t particularly impressed with Moustakas. (He told me, “you know who Moustakas reminds me of? I think he’s going to hit like Shea Hillenbrand with more power.” Fighting words, those are.) But when I asked about Hosmer, the first thing he said was, “he’s going to hit .300 with 30 homers in the majors.”
So yeah, Hosmer is ready. But that’s not why everyone is excited. There are two other subplots hanging over Hosmas that explain why May 6th may be the start of a new era.
The first is that while the Royals broke camp with a couple of prospects in tow, they were all in the bullpen – Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, Jeremy Jeffress, and even Nate Adcock are pieces of the puzzle, but they’re not the guys you build around. Louis Coleman debuted a few weeks later, giving the Royals five rookies in their bullpen – but the only other rookie on the roster is Jarrod Dyson.
But Hosmer is the first member of the Big Six (Danny Duffy has elevated himself into that top tier of prospects with his performance this season) to make it to the majors. He’s not a complementary piece – he’s a future #3 hitter in a championship lineup. And he’s here. Today. He may not be a #3 hitter yet, but he’s better than anyone else the Royals have right now.
And that brings us to the second subplot, which is that with this one unexpected move, the Royals are sending a subtle (or not so subtle) message: we’re going for it – this season. You may not agree with the message. I’m not so sure I agree with it myself. But I can’t help but admire an organization which sees a window of opportunity they weren’t expecting, both because they didn’t think they would be above .500 at this point and because the two teams that were expected to battle it out for the AL Central have both been colossal disappointments, and tries to steal the division a year or two before everyone thought they’d be ready.
It would be one thing if the Royals made a move to win in 2011 that actively hurt their chances of winning in 2012 and beyond. If they had traded from their stash of prospects for a veteran pitcher in the last year of his contract, we’d be storming Dayton Moore’s office like it was the Bastille. If they had started the season with Hosmer on the roster, moving up his free agency date by a year, we would have all screamed bloody murder. (As it is, despite – or perhaps because of – Aaron Crow’s success, I’m still a little perturbed that the Royals needlessly moved up his free agency date. But pitchers have a much shorter shelf-life than hitters, so it’s not quite the same thing.)
If they had rushed a prospect to the majors to fill a hole, Allard Baird-style, I’d be furious. But they didn’t. You can argue the Hosmer promotion was a bad idea from a number of angles, mostly regarding the economic and opportunity costs. But you can’t reasonably argue that he was rushed. Every piece of scouting and statistical data I’ve seen says otherwise.
So at least on the surface, the Royals made a move which improves the major league team immediately, gives a clear signal that they’re going to take their chances of contention seriously until proven otherwise, and gives their long-suffering fan base a glimpse of a brighter future to come. And they did so without compromising their farm system at all.
That’s not to say that Hosmer’s promotion is entirely cost-free, because it’s not. The most obvious cost of promoting Hosmer on Thursday is, well, the cost. Under the current rules, by being promoted exactly five weeks into the season, Hosmer is almost guaranteed to be a “Super-Two” player at the end of the 2013 season. The rules allow players with three full years of service time to be eligible for arbitration, and a limited number of players with between two and three years of service time. The cutoff is generally about two years and four months – which is to say, any prospect promoted before June will typically qualify as a Super-Two a few years later.
That’s not a piddling designation. The binary nature of major league baseball’s salary structure is such that someone who falls even one day short of being a Super-Two is subject to having his salary the following year decided by his employer. You don’t amass the money needed to buy a baseball team without learning how to exploit employees, so this means the player will earn only slightly more than the league minimum. However, a player who qualifies for arbitration can compare his performance to that of other arbitration-eligible players. He won’t earn as much as he would as a free agent, but he’ll earn seven figures for sure.
For the typical, average player, the difference between being arbitration-eligible and not might be a few million dollars. Alex Gordon was a Super-Two after the 2009 season, and settled with the Royals for $1.15 million – so the Super-Two designation was worth barely half-a-million dollars to him. Of course, he was coming off a year in which he played 49 games and hit .232. For a star player, the cost could be a lot more.
If memory serves, the largest arbitration award for a Super-Two player was the $10 million Ryan Howard got before the 2008 season. He earned that money because the year before, Howard had hit 47 homers with 136 RBIs and finished 5th in the MVP vote, and all those numbers paled to his performance in 2006, when he won the MVP behind 58 homers and 149 RBIs.
Tim Lincecum was widely expected to challenge Howard’s arbitration record before the 2010 season, but settled before his hearing for a 2-year, $22 million contract that paid him only $9 million last year. All Lincecum had done over the previous two years was win the Cy Young Award – both years.
So the worst-case scenario for the Royals – which is actually the best-case scenario – is that Hosmer’s premature promotion will add about $10 million to their 2014 payroll. The question I can’t answer – and if there are any baseball business experts out there, please feel free to comment (paging Maury Brown) – is this: does a Super-Two player also get higher arbitration awards in future seasons?
By that, I mean that a player who reaches arbitration for the first time – generally after 3 years of service time – can compare himself to players with similar amounts of service time, between 3 and 4 years, I believe. Players with 4 years of service time – players eligible for arbitration for the second time – can compare themselves to players with between 4 and 5 years of service time. And so forth. As a result, a player will see his salary increase as he approaches free agency even if his performance stays the same.
What I don’t know is whether a Super-Two player gets any additional advantages after his Super-Two season. The following year (when he’s a “Super-Three”), is he treated like all the other arbitration-eligible players with three years of service time, or does he get an additional advantage because it’s his second year of eligibility? If he doesn’t, then his financial advantage is limited to that first year; if he does, then he may continue to reap an increase in his salary every year until he hits free agency.
I am pretty sure he does not get an advantage beyond the first year – aside from the fact that his previous year’s salary is a lot higher, and a player almost literally never sees his salary cut in arbitration. If I’m right, then the absolute maximum cost to bringing up Hosmer on May 5th, instead of June 25th, would be $10 million. And a more realistic cost – assuming he doesn’t compete for MVP awards over the next two seasons – would be about half that. (If he does compete for MVP awards, I’m sure we’ll find a way to deal with it.)
That’s not chump change. And even if the cost only winds up being $5 million – Sam Mellinger thinks it could be a lot more – that’s a hell of a lot of money for the next six weeks of Hosmer’s career. But the caveat here is this: the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players’ union and ownership expires this winter. Everyone expects a new agreement to be hammered out peacefully, but everyone also expects some changes to be made in the agreement. One of the areas where changes may be seen is in the area of Super Two players. There’s probably a 50/50 chance that the rules will be changed substantially, in which case Hosmer either won’t be a Super Two after all, or he would have been a Super Two even if he had stayed in the minors for another six weeks.
It’s still a big risk, and I’m not sure it was risk the Royals needed to take. If they think they can stay in contention all season, then it’s a risk they can justify. But they better be right.
(An excellent analysis of the arbitration implications for Hosmer can be read here.)
I’ll take a moment here to address what I consider to be the most ridiculous argument against bringing up Hosmer, which is that if the Royals had kept him in the minors until mid-April, 2012, they would have delayed his free agency for another season. I understand the temptation to treat players as commodities – anyone who’s ever played fantasy baseball has that temptation. But look – in order for this to have worked out, you’d have to keep Hosmer in Omaha all season AND not call him up in September AND not break camp with him next spring.
Hosmer’s not going to hit .439 in Omaha all season – but frankly, he might well have hit .369, with walks and power and great defense. If he had spent all season in Omaha, he would have had one of the greatest Triple-A seasons by a true prospect in modern history. (That’s a good question – who was the last prospect to play a full season in Triple-A and rake like this? Mike Marshall comes to mind – Marshall hit .373/.445/.657 with 34 homers and 21 steals in 1981, when he was 21 years old. But Marshall had the benefit of hitting in the thin air of Albuquerque. There’s probably a more recent example.)
If Hosmer rakes all season and you don’t bring him up in September, you’re going to have a grievance on your hand, and you’re going to lose. (Hosmer’s agent is Scott Boras, who don’t forget filed a grievance against MLB alleging that his client Pedro Alvarez signed after the deadline in 2008 – a grievance which eventually led to Hosmer being forced to sit out after the Pirates leaked the news that Hosmer also signed after the deadline.) The only way Hosmer can be held down in the minors another 11 months is if he 1) gets hurt or 2) starts sucking. If your financial strategy revolves around rooting for your best prospects to fail, you must be Frank McCourt.
The other cost here is the opportunity cost for one Kila Ka’aihue. Ka’aihue got less than 100 plate appearances to show what he can do, and after he failed his audition, his time with the Royals is now, for all intents and purposes, over. There is no way to spin this as anything other than a massive fail for the Royals.
I’m not saying that Ka’aihue is guaranteed to become a productive major league first baseman. On the contrary, I’ve seen enough from him this year, and spoken to enough scouts whose opinions I respect and who understand what the numbers say, to have some serious concerns about his future. It’s quite possible that he’s another Calvin Pickering, another player who hit for massive power in the minors but whose swing and bat speed was exploited by major league pitchers. But it’s also quite possible he’s a poor man’s Carlos Pena. Pena was a slightly above-average hitter – which is to say he was a below-average hitting first baseman – from 2002 to 2005, and then he nearly washed out of baseball, winding up as an NRI with the Devil Rays in 2007. At which point, at the age of 29, he hit .282/.411/.627 with 46 homers, beginning a three-year run as one of the best first basemen in baseball.
The problem is, we simply don’t know. Ka’aihue has 87 games and 326 plate appearances in his major league career. He’s hit .216/.309/.375, unacceptable numbers for a first baseman. On the other hand, Mike Jacobs hit .228/.297/.401 with the Royals – after accounting for the downturn in offense, Ka’aihue’s OPS+ is actually higher (88) than Jacobs’ (84). Jacobs got 128 games and 478 plate appearances with the Royals.
Ka’aihue deserved – and still deserves – a chance to play everyday in the majors for a full season. The Royals decided they could no longer afford to give him that chance in 2011, because their priorities have been forced by circumstance to change from playing for the future to playing for this year. Their priorities are debatable, but at least they’re understandable. What’s not understandable, and what has never been understandable, are the Royals’ priorities in 2009 and 2010, when they were clearly never in any danger of contending for the playoffs.
Giving up on Ka’aihue this year is frustrating and disappointing – but it’s not inexplicable. It’s not a clear blunder. Waiting until August last year because God forbid we should let Jose Guillen go and deprive ourselves of his speed, defense, and clubhouse leadership – that was a clear blunder. Not letting Ka’aihue prove himself in 2009, and trading a useful reliever in Leo Nunez for an expensive DH that couldn’t muster a .300 OBP – that was a clear blunder. Those blunders are even more clear today, because they led us to this moment, where the Royals gave up on a player who was perhaps the best hitter in the minor leagues the last three years, without ever giving him a sufficient opportunity to play in the majors.
So Hosmas was a bittersweet day. Ka’aihue may one day be a quality regular in the majors, but if he is, it’s almost guaranteed it won’t be with the Royals. And after doing everything in their power to destroy his trade value, it’s hard to imagine the Royals would get anything substantial for him.
So where do we go from here? We saw in Hosmer’s debut just what the hype was about. It started with his defense, when he started a slick 3-6-3 double play to get out of the first inning. Perhaps the most underrated thing about Hosmer is that he’s not just a left-handed hitter, he’s a left-handed thrower – of all the positions on the field, first base is the only position where throwing with a specific arm gives you an inherent advantage. (Well, the only position where you actually see players throw with either hand. Throwing right-handed is such an enormous advantage at the other three infield positions that there hasn’t been a left-handed throwing shortstop, third baseman, or second baseman in modern major-league history.) Hosmer is an above-average defender with a terrific arm for a first baseman; Billy Butler might as well rent a long-term storage facility for his gloves.
As a hitter, I’ve always compared Hosmer to Will Clark, and I think Clark’s rookie season is a terrific approximation for what to expect from Hosmer this year: Clark hit .287/.343/.444 with 11 homers in 111 games. (Not only is my Will Clark comparison no longer considered outlandish, some people think it might undersell Hosmer. Kevin Goldstein said of a comparison to Will Clark that Hosmer is “bigger and stronger” than The Thrill.) While Hosmer has massive power potential, he only hit three homers in Omaha, and it’s expected that his power will take some reps to manifest itself. But as we saw in his debut, Hosmer has a very mature batting eye, and between the walks and his line-drive swing, an OBP north of .350 as a rookie seems possible.
It’s for that reason that, after watching Hosmer steal second base easily after his second walk of the night, that I had a brainstorm: Hosmer should be batting leadoff.
I know it sounds crazy. But the Royals simply don’t have anyone on the roster who fits the leadoff role well. Mike Aviles doesn’t walk at all; Chris Getz doesn’t hit at all; Jarrod Dyson doesn’t play at all. Suddenly, the Royals have added a player who should hit for a high average, knows the strike zone, and has surprising speed. With the 2-through-6 spots in the lineup already largely set, why not put Hosmer at the front of the line? The leadoff hitter gets the most plate appearances on the team – who would you rather see at the plate more often, Hosmer or Getz?
I can’t imagine this will ever happen, simply because Ned Yost is so hidebound by tradition that he would never think of using a first baseman in the leadoff spot. And unless you mix up the heart of the lineup, batting Hosmer leadoff might lead to having Aviles/Treanor/Escobar, three right-handed hitters, batting back-to-back-to-back from 7 to 9. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the solution to the Royals’ leadoff dilemma might have just presented itself.
Now that Hosmer has arrived, the question becomes whether his promotion is an anomaly or whether it heralds a youth movement that is coming faster than anyone expected. My suspicion is this: Hosmer is a unique case, given how well he was playing, and the Royals would rather not promote anyone else prior to the Super Two deadline. The promotion of Moustakas, which seemed a fait accompli a few weeks ago, is now on indefinite hold, both because of the way Betemit and Aviles are hitting, and because of the way Moustakas isn’t. The Royals can run seven quality hitters out there every day, and the two positions they can’t (shortstop and catcher) are two positions where the farm system doesn’t have any ready-made solutions.
The bullpen can’t get any younger unless the Royals start elementary school auditions. However, the Royals really need a second left-handed reliever, particularly since Tim Collins’ repertoire makes him ill-suited to be a lefty specialist. If anyone gets called up the rest of the month, look for it to be Everett Teaford, who recently moved from the rotation to the bullpen, likely with a promotion in mind.
That leaves the rotation. Mike Montgomery and Danny Duffy are both pitching very well in Omaha, and the rotation is the roster’s weakest link. However, none of the five starters have pitched themselves out of the rotation yet. Kyle Davies, I think, still has a few starts left to prove himself one way or the other. Sean O’Sullivan, who everyone expected to be the first guy out, has actually pitched the best of the five. Furthermore, if one of the five gets bombed or gets hurt, Vinny Mazzaro will probably be first in line.
So at least for the next six weeks, the Royals will probably stand pat. If, six weeks from now, the dream has died, then so be it: maybe Hosmer will have been called up a little early, but on the other hand he’ll be that much more prepared to dominate in 2012. At that point the Royals can promote every other prospect according to a timetable dictated by their development, not by the team’s needs.
And if, six weeks from now, the Royals are still in it? After another six weeks, the Royals will have that much better an idea of what they have in Montgomery and Duffy. They’ll have that much better an idea of which starters in their rotation need to be pulled. And the financial cost of bringing up a prospect will be that much less.
So stay tuned. A playoff berth this season is an improbability, but it’s no longer the impossibility it seemed to be. And keep this in mind: even if the Royals don’t contend this year, the acceleration of the youth movement makes contention in 2012 much more likely. I never bought the talk after the Greinke trade that the window of contention for the Royals had been pushed to 2013. I still thought that 2012 was a reasonable goal if the prospects all developed as expected – but inherent to that development was that the elite prospects had to arrive sometime in 2011. If Hosmer and Moustakas and Montgomery and Duffy all got their feet wet in 2011, I thought, they’d be ready to compete in 2012.
So whether Hosmer’s promotion means the Royals are more likely to contend this season, it’s safe to say that his promotion – and the promise of more promotions over the next few months – makes the Royals more likely to contend next season. In the meantime, just enjoy the ride.
And remember, while Will Clark didn’t set the world on fire as a rookie, the following year he hit .308/.371/.580 with 35 homers, and finished fifth in the league in MVP voting.
And the Giants went to the playoffs.