This September, the Kansas City Royals called up a number of players from the minor leagues to the big league club. In September, the legal on-field roster expands from 25 to the entire 40-man roster. It allows teams to diversify their roster for the stretch run, rest players who need resting, and try out new players with no roster impact.
When the Omaha Storm Chasers' season ended on September 6, the Royals called up Daniel Nava, Kevin McCarthy, and Christian Colon. A few days earlier on September 2, the Royals called up Tony Cruz, Whit Merrifield, and Terrance Gore. Other than Cruz, whose sole existence on the roster is to be the tertiary and emergency catcher, all five players have appeared.
On September 2, the Royals also called up Hunter Dozier. Dozier was fresh off a hot year, and alongside Raul Mondesi was the only premier position player in the upper minors.
Since that day, Kansas City has played nine games, some home and some away, some against lefty starters and some against righty starters, some day games and some night games. It is Monday, September 12. Dozier has yet to make his debut.
Frankly, that's ridiculous. Let's look into the why, but first a bit into the who.
Who is Dozier and why is he important?
A first-round pick in the 2013 MLB draft, Dozier did well enough in Rookie and A ball that year. In 2014, he did well in A+ ball, making it his third successful stop, but Dozier stalled in AA that year when he was promoted. Hitters stall in AA all the time, though, and it was Dozier's fourth level in two years.
It was a shock when Dozier repeated AA in 2015--and was terrible. Dozier only hit .213/.281/.349, and struck out 151 times in 128 games. Considering Dozier's failure in AA the previous year and his age, Dozier's status as a top prospect seemed to be over for good.
That was disappointing, as Dozier was considered to be a solid all-around player. Dozier made Baseball America's Top 100 Prospect list two years in a row (2014-2015), both times in the mid 90s. Take a look at this scouting report in April 2014 from Jason Hunt over at Fake Teams:
After Dozier's terrible 2015, he fell out of the top 100.
But then came 2016. In his third trek to AA, Dozier crushed it, with a 1.042 OPS and 8 home runs in only 26 games. Dozier was promoted to AAA midseason, and put up an .864 OPS in 103 games. Our own Shaun Newkirk ranked him as the third-best Royals prospect in his midseason prospect list, just ahead of Raul Mondesi.
Dozier is important because he is the Royals' best hitting prospect. As a third baseman, his position makes him more valuable than Ryan O'Hearn, and if Chase Vallot can't stick at catcher, his value also tanks. No other hitter in the system can be expected to surpass Dozier. And as a brand new 25 year-old, Dozier still has youth on his side. He won't be as good as Kris Bryant, of course, but it's important to note that Dozier is only six months older than Bryant. He's still got a bunch of potential, and potential is sorely lacking in the Royals' minor league system.
Why it's ridiculous that Dozier has been an afterthought
Dozier's native position is third base, as his 6'4", 220 lb frame forced the move from shortstop, his college position. However, with both Mike Moustakas and Cheslor Cuthbert as third baseman (with Whit Merrifield and Christian Colon also making multiple starts at third base this year), the Royals have started Dozier 25 times in the outfield and seven times at first base in an effort to give Dozier some flexibility.
Standing in Dozier's way of third base is Cuthbert. Cuthbert has served the Royals well in absence of Moustakas this season...
...except that he really hasn't. Cuthbert's status as a good third baseman is a falsehood. Don't believe me? Look at his stats:
In 127 games over two years, Cuthbert has been below average offensively and defensively. He hits for a moderate average, but he's not good at walking and he doesn't make elite contact. He's slow, too, and has been bad on the basepaths.
Look, I love Cuthbert. He's been fun to watch, and he's so smiley and happy. But he's just not good, guys. I don't know how else to say it. Cuthbert is younger than Dozier, and has traditionally done better at each level on his second try...but he doesn't have a fantastic prospect pedigree or Dozier's tools. And a 1 WAR player, which is what Cuthbert has been over his career, is totally replacable.
Also in the way of Dozier is Whit Merrifield and Christian Colon.
Ned said he will use Merrifield and Colon more at second or third base as #Royals head down the stretch— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) September 10, 2016
Colon is a nice, cheap utility guy; he has average to above-average numbers in both DRS and UZR at shortstop, second base, and third base. He is also a 27 year-old owner of a .661 OPS and 0.7 WAR in 112 career games. Merrifield is a nice, cheap utility guy; he plays very good defense at multiple positions and is a great and quick baserunner. He is also a 27 year-old rookie who has never made any top prospect lists, has no upside, and only has a .700 OPS even with an inflated, lucky BABIP.
I argued that, as long as the Royals are interested in winning, Merrifield should start at second base. And he should--if the Royals are interested in winning games now as opposed to developing prospects. He's likely better than both Colon and Mondesi going forward, and has certainly been better than both of them in the past.
So what gives? I sent a tweet to Rustin Dodd, Royals beat writer for the Kansas City Star, and Sam Mellinger, sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, who both replied with some insight. The next day, Jeffrey Flanagan, Royals beat writer for MLB.com, sent out a Tweet regarding Dozier independent of my inquiry. Their responses reveal some...questionable reasoning on the part of the Royals.
@LaMar_Matt he's not injured. Minor leagues are over. He wouldn't be playing there— Sam Mellinger (@mellinger) September 10, 2016
They've been playing nothing but must-win games and Ned Yost likes his corner infielders. OF ability is still raw. https://t.co/rfsyQ4qMFJ— Rustin Dodd (@rustindodd) September 10, 2016
Ned said he will try to work in Hunter Dozier at some point. But not against Chris Sale. And Cuthbert and Merrifield still better options— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) September 11, 2016
To recap, the Royals reasoning seems to be
- Cuthbert and Merrifield (and Colon) are better options
- Must-win games aren't the place to try out rookies
- Dozier isn't proficient enough at the outfield to play him there.
Look, it's entirely possible that there are other reasons that the Royals haven't telegraphed. But their reasoning here is....I just...sigh.
To the first point: there is no realistic argument that is able to truthfully claim that Cuthbert is a good, or even average, player. Merrifield and Colon at third base are 27 year-old non-prospects who would be playing out of position.
To the second point: Yost used McCarthy on September 10th, in his second-ever MLB game, in the sixth inning of a one-run game with two men on base, and has willingly played an overmatched, 20 year-old Mondesi for 38 games this year.
To the third point: Dozier's lack of proficiency in the outfield is the Royals' own fault and no one else's. At the moment, Dozier is somehow fourth on the third base depth chart. There's just no way around this not being an example of extraordinarily poor planning on the Royals' part. Either they knew that Dozier would be so low on the depth chart and they still started him at third base 79 times this year, or they didn't know that he would be so low on the depth chart and kicked off his service time anyway to just sit on the bench.
I don't think anybody would expect Dozier to instantly become the Royals' starting third baseman. And nobody thought that he would become the starting right fielder, either. But Dozier hasn't played a single inning in the field anywhere or even one pinch-hit plate appearance.
The most frustrating thing about this isn't that Dozier deserves to play, but that it's just such a boneheaded thing to refuse to play him. The Royals are five teams behind the second Wild Card spot, trailing by four games. The Royals haven't held one of the playoff spots since June 3. This team as it is currently constructed is not a Wild Card team. Reliance on Dyson, Orlando, Merrifield, Cuthbert, and Colon as core cogs in this team is part of why this team is worse than last year and likely won't make the playoffs.
And so Dozier offers a cheap in-house option that doesn't cost the Royals anything. Maybe he's better than Cuthbert. Maybe he's not. Maybe he's better than Colon or Orlando. Maybe he's not. And it would be different if the Royals were trying to hang on to a hard-fought Wild Card spot. But they aren't. If the season ended today, the Royals would miss the playoffs. There is nothing to lose by playing Dozier, and lots to gain.
At some point, Dozier will probably debut. He probably won't set the world on fire. He could, though. But at this point, with only 20 games left, it's probably too little, too late.