Bob Dutton's latest article on Eric Hosmer is a classic spring training fluff piece. It has to be difficult for Dutton to come up with something new every single day, so I understand that not everything he writes will be meaningful and consequential.
Dutton, however, included a quote that struck me as insightful, even if it was simply his introduction to the piece:
The guy who looms as the linchpin to the Royals' lineup, first baseman Eric Hosmer
Right or wrong, it's hard to shake the feeling that the Royals rest a lot of their playoff hopes on the shoulders of the 23 year-old first baseman.
It's sometimes nice to remind myself that no matter how much criticism I give the man, Dayton Moore is far more qualified to run a baseball team than I am. I'm assuming that David Glass has not given GMDM an ultimatum to win this season or lose his job, so I believe that the Moore's decision to trade Wil Myers for James Shields was not a moral hazard. He simply believes that the trade was the correct decision for the Royals at the time.
Moore and I both look at the same Royals roster and come to different conclusions about Kansas City's playoff chances. I think the one of the biggest differences between Moore's evaluation of the team and my own is our evaluation of Hosmer.
When I see Eric Hosmer, I see a player who has .5 fWAR after 1161 plate appearances. Most projection systems expect the third-year player to post a WAR in the neighborhood of 2-2.5 wins, which would constitute acceptable progression after a horrendous sophomore season.
I believe that when Moore sees Eric Hosmer, he sees the potential superstar. I'm sure Moore has looked over the same projection systems that I have, plus some that the Royals have created themselves.
But I don't believe there is any way that he pulls the trigger on that trade if he doesn't believe that Hosmer will outperform those projections. A Royals anonymous official helps support my belief with a quote in an earlierDutton article:
"Let's not kid ourselves, all the moves we made to improve our starting rotation won't amount to much if Eric Hosmer doesn't bounce back and become the player we believe he can be."
To me, there is a difference between "bouncing back" and "becoming the play we believe he can be." Almost everybody expects some sort of bounce back with Hosmer, as he is still young, had success as a rookie, and had such a terrible season last year that it's almost impossible for him to perform worse. But the Royals believe Hosmer can be a superstar, and are making decisions based on the fact that he will.
Ned Yost showed a similar sentiment, as he told our favorite beat writer:
"It's extremely important, but I don't even question his bounceback. It's not like, ‘I hope he bounces back.' I'm pretty firm in my mind that it's a done deal. He's bouncing back. He's going to have a tremendous year."
In the mind of the Royals management, Hosmer will bounce back, no questions asked. And he will not just bounce back, he will continue his progression from his rookie season as if his sophomore slump had never happened.
While it is probably good thing that the Royals have confidence in their young players, last season should probably give management some second thoughts about Hosmer's star potential. It's unlikely that Hosmer completely busts in the major leagues; his age and his success as a rookie indicate that he is capable of a quality major league career.
The first baseman can have a quality major league career, however, and not turn out to be the superstar everyone has hoped he will. That is perfectly acceptable, as superstars by nature are few and far between. But the Royals need and expect Hosmer to produce at that level, which is an unfair expectation for the 23 year-old.
In many ways, Hosmer is the representative of "The Best Farm System in the History of Whatever" for Royals fans. During the 2010 season, it was Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer together. Hosmer had big numbers in High-A and Double-A, but Moose hit 36 homers between Double-A and Triple-A and was named Sporting News' Minor League Hitter of the Year. There were also four promising left-handed pitchers, showing off the system's depth and diversity.
Hosmer continued on that promise in 2011, hitting an absolutely absurd .439/.525/.582 in Triple-A before receiving a call-up to Kansas City. Hosmer proceeded to hold his own in the majors at 21, hitting .293/.334/.465 in 563 plate appearances.
Not only did Hosmer succeeded, but most of the Royals other highly rated prospects struggled. Mike Moustakas hit 15 percent below league average after his promotion. Danny Duffy posted a 5.64 ERA for the Royals. John Lamb went under the knife. Mike Montgomery and Chris Dwyer started their implosion. Even Myers had a disappointing 2011, slugging under .400 in hitter-friendly Northwest Arkansas.
With so many other prospects futures looking murky, Hosmer became the focal point of praise throughout the industry. Buster Olney argued the Royals needed to lock him up to a contract extension. Jim Bowden predicted Hosmer had a realistic chance to win the Triple Crown in his career. Sam Mellinger worried about infidelity between his wife and the first baseman. Rustin Dodd called Hosmer "the face of the franchise." Jeff Francoeur and George Brett both saw him as a "can't-miss talent". Old Man Duggan even started a religious movement about the first baseman.
The onslaught of hype and promise only exacerbated the disappointment many fans felt during Hosmer's complete breakdown, especially amongst the youngest Royals fans. For those who have followed Kansas City for years, his season was just the latest in a long barrage of jabs that landed clean; if you have stuck with the Royals for the past 27 years, you own an iron chin.
But amongst the younger fans, especially those who don't have the perspective to take hype with a grain of salt, the shot rocked them. Like all Royals fans under the age of 30, they've grown up surrounded by the losing. But Hosmer was supposed to be different, a chance for Kansas City fans to have one of the game's superstars.
Frustration peaked at the end of the season, but a long winter can help restore reason and moderation to the discussion. Again, he's only 23, and is presumably still brimming with the tools that impressed everyone originally. Professor Parks still believes in Hosmer's #grace, and he's much more qualified to speak on the subject than I. David Schoenfield has run some statistical comparisons, and he still expects Hosmer to develop into a good player. Still, Royals fans now seen his mortality, and it should have sparked a little bit of fear that Hosmer will not live up to expectations.
The problem with the Royals playoff hopes for this season is so many things need to break correctly, and then some for Kansas City to find themselves as a viable contender in September. It certainly can happen, but there is a reason that none of us nerds will predict the Royals reaching the post-season in 2013.
But the people who I have interacted with in physical and virtual reality who are not as versed in sabermetrics as the regular Royals Review commenter appear much more optimistic about the team's chances this season. We have a young lineup, and with the pitching staff finally "fixed," so some think the team is ready to make the leap into contention.
The problem is even if the team gets more things to break their way than not, they could still feasibly miss the playoffs. Remember, this team needs to improve by about 16 wins from 2012 to 2013 with mostly the same lineup and a similar caliber of pitchers, outside of Shields, that Kansas City fielded last season.
So if everyone who needs to improve does so and no one else regresses and nobody gets hurt, the Royals should have a chance. The Royals young lineup (and general ineffectiveness in 2012) makes regression unlikely, but the best hitters have likely reached their peak (Butler, Gordon) and most of the other hitters don't have particular high ceilings, except for Hosmer and Moustakas.*
*Well, and Perez, but he deserves his own breakdown. I'm expecting 4-5 wins from Perez in my "Royals will not make the playoffs" analysis, which is plenty optimistic.
I think Moose's .301 career OBP has tempered people's expectations about the third baseman at the plate, and he has shown that he can contribute in the field. He also did not receive the same deification that Hosmer did, so he likely won't feel the same pressure to perform that the first baseman will.
So Hosmer is the player expected to make the leap to stardom, to transform into a great player and help carry this team back to the Promised Land. No pressure or anything.
Getting ahead of ourselves, what happens if Eric Hosmer turns out to be good instead of great? Can Kansas City stomach two 80-85 win teams the next two seasons before Shields likely leaves town? Can the fan who desperately believes this team is the one to reach the playoffs stomach one middling season?
I have seen Royals fans turn on good players before who don't develop into stars, or at least not as quickly as everyone hoped they would. Billy Butler tends to receive unnecessary amounts of criticism for being slow, especially when he is hitting doubles instead of homers; never mind that he has been the Royals best hitter the past four seasons. I have a friend who still holds a grudge against Alex Gordon because he didn't develop into "the next George Brett," even though Gordon has the third highest fWAR amongst outfielders the past two seasons.
Butler and Gordon's growing pains did not have a huge impact on the Royals, as the team was not contending regardless of how the players performed. Hosmer doesn't get that luxury; the team has a two-year window to reach the playoffs to justify the Shields trade. The first baseman has already been anointed the face of the franchise, if things don't turn out well for Kansas City, fans will likely not remember Hosmer fondly.
The hype and the hoopla that surrounded Hosmer elevated his profile, and his 2012 campaign left most people concerned. Now the stakes are raised, and people inside and outside the organization expect Hosmer to start fulfilling his potential.
I want nothing more than for Hosmer to make the leap into super-stardom, to play to the level people inside the industry say he can, and bring a playoff team to Kansas City for the first time in my life. I wouldn't bet money on that happening, but for his sake and the team's sake, I hope like hell it does.