Though they are quite different players, Eric Hosmer and Justin Smoak are forever intertwined in my memory. Kansas City had the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, and Hosmer and Smoak were two of the fan favorites for the Royals to pluck with that pick. Hindsight seems to indicate Buster Posey would have been the best selection, and indeed there were those who championed him here on Royals Review. Brett Lawrie was also available, but I don’t remember much mention of him as a number 3 slot guy.
No, I remember the biggest part of the debate being Hosmer or Smoak, youth versus college experience, raw talent versus a more MLB ready prospect. Though prospects of all stripes can fail, these two were seen as being close to a sure thing. The Royals went with the high ceiling and youth of Hosmer, and Smoak slid to the Rangers at 11, after Posey, Gordon Beckham and Aaron Crow, among others, came off the board.
Almost four seasons have passed since that day, and both Hosmer and Smoak have significant MLB experience. What have we learned about these two so far?
Sure enough, Smoak reached the bigs first, making his debut on April 23, 2010 in a 5-4 loss to Detroit. He went 0-2 with two walks, slotted at sixth in the order between David Murphy and Mr. Misty Treanor. He finally got his first MLB hit, a double off Jeremy Bonderman, on April 26 in his fourth MLB game. He ended April with a very SSS, horrendous .130/.323/.348. May was enen worse, .187/.282/.308.
He looked to be coming around in June, posting a .832 OPS for the month, but on July 9 he was sent to the Mariners as part of the Cliff Lee rental. July was an absolute disister (welcome to Safeco), but he had a hot September and finished the year with a disappointing .218/.307/.371. He was 23 years old.
Opening day of 2011 found Smoak firmly ensconced at 1B for an offensively challenged Mariners squad, and he got out of the gate fast with 4 HR’s and a .920 OPS for April. He cooled off but maintained an OPS in the mid .700’s with 8 more HR’s through the end of June. Then came July.
Oh, July, how could you. Smoak went 12-85 with no HR’s, finishing with a dismal for anyone .141/.211/.188 for the month. He missed the whole month of August on the DL, then returned after a short rehab stint in Tacoma to post OK numbers to finish the season. All tolled, he finished 2011 with 15 HR’s and a .234/.323/.396 line. Look familiar?
Meanwhile, Hosmer began 2011 razing dowtown Sarpy County with his mighty bat, leaping over Mike Moustakas as the prospect most likely to head south to the bigs, and on May 6 he debuted against the Oakland A’s. No hits, two walks versus Gio Gonzales, not bad for a 21 year old lefty. The next day he got his first MLB hit, a single off Brandon McCarthy, in a low scoring win with Good Luke pitching seven.
After a mild slump in June, Hosmer finished the year in style posting a .293/.334/.465 with 19 HR’s. Not Vottoesque, but good for a 21 year old kid. Fans declared him to be the Second Coming and work on his Cooperstown plaque officially commenced. Hosmer, Butler and Gordon would be the solid middle of the order for the forseeable future.
But 2012 came with a dose of reality. By the end of the calendar year, Hosmer will be 23, Smoak 26. We all know about Hosmer’s struggles at the plate (and in the field) this season, but Smoak has descended into the 9th ring of Safeco hell. He started slow, showed signs of life with 6 HR’s and a .754 OPS in May, then plummetted to depths thought to be impossible for him. After two months of sub-.500 OPS offense, he was sent down to work it out in Tacoma.
Hosmer has been less up and down, but never very far up so far this season. He almost looked like himself (the one we remember) in June and August, but he’s still sitting at .240/.310/.368 for the season. This looks eerily like Smoak’s 2011 line, and is in fact worse. Smoak is back up to Seattle, but he’s still flailing at the plate in ways most deemed impossible, posting .192/.260/.318 thus far.
Smoak has been in MLB for most of 3 seasons. In 1,332 PA’s he has managed a .215/.297/.362, and is currently having by far the worst season of his brief career. Hosmer is going to finish 2012 with fewer than 2 years in MLB, but he already has 1,082 PA’s and currently has a career line of .269/.323/.420. They both hit HR’s at a reasonable but not great rate. They are the same size. Smoak hits lefties better because he is a switch-hitter, but he’s not hitting well from either side. Smoak walks and K’s at a higher rate.
So enough random statistical comparisons. They are different players, but similar enough to scare me. Being in Mariner country, I’ve seen how bad Smoak has been. In 2011 he had what everyone assumed was an uncharacteristically bad year; it looked a lot like Hosmer this year. No one foresaw Smoak’s 2012 debacle. Sure, Hosmer’s younger and has had more success in MLB than Smoak, but I still look at Smoak and worry. It can’t happen here, right?