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Hunter Dozier doesn’t seem to fit anywhere in the Royals roster puzzle

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Where is he going to play?

Texas Rangers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Kansas City Royals drafted Hunter Dozier as the eighth overall pick in the first round of the 2013 Major League Baseball draft. The star of that draft was very clearly Chicago Cubs third baseman and second overall pick Kris Bryant, but other than Bryant the most successful players in that draft are guys like Kendall Graveman, Ryon Healy, and Sean Manaea, none of whom are exactly household names. Manaea was actually another Royals pick, the 34th overall, and Kansas City’s interest in Manaea combined with the minutia of draft signing bonus structure was the reason that the Royals selected Dozier first. From this very website four years ago:

The Royals draft strategy is starting to make clearer sense now after Jim Callis reported today that the club has signed pitcher Sean Manaea to a $3.55 million bonus, a record for a supplemental round pick. The slot value for the 34th overall pick - where Manaea was selected - is $1.623 million. Manaea, a left-handed pitcher out of Indiana State University, was considered a top ten talent by many, but slid due to some injuries late in the year, and was considered a tough sign since he still had the option to return to school for his senior year to re-establish his draft value...

...They took Hunter Dozier with the #8 pick, with the expectation he would sign underslot, allowing them to draft Manaea at #34. Had they taken Manaea at #8 and failed to sign him, they would have had to forfeit the slot value at #8, massively shrinking their draft budget. Dayton played the system, and for once, he played the system well.

From the very beginning, Dozier was really a means to an end: Kansas City wanted Manaea, who they were able to get with the help of Dozier. Of course, Dozier was considered to be a pretty good player himself. From River Ave Blues’ scouting report on Dozier:

After going undrafted out of a Texas high school in 2010, Dozier followed through on his commitment to Stephen F. Austin State University and has hit .357/.428/.608 with 32 homers in three years for the Lumberjacks. He hit .396/.482/.755 with 17 homers and 12 stolen bases this year, and he’ll become the highest drafted player in school history (by a lot) later this week.

Listed at 6-foot-4 and 220 lbs., Dozier stands out for his right-handed power. He has very strong hands and uses his lower half very well, allowing him to do most of his damage the other way to right field. His bat control and quick swing still allow him to catch up to inside pitches and avoid getting jammed. The offensive tools all play up because Dozier knows the strike zone well and waits for his pitch. Although he moves well for his size and is a good athlete, he’ll wind up at either second or third base as a pro. He pitched once upon a time and has a very strong arm.

The Royals did indeed see Dozier as something other than a shortstop. Dozier started nine games at short the year he was drafted, but otherwise played exclusively at the hot corner until 2016, when the Royals started to mix in some time in the corner outfield and first base.

Dozier’s professional career has been well documented here and elsewhere. A short review: Dozier hit well in Rookie ball and low A ball in 2013, crushing his way through high A ball in 2014 and earning a midseason promotion to AA. There he languished for the rest of 2014 and all of 2015, his offense all but abandoning him. Dozier bounced back in a big way in 2016, when he finally conquered AA and then AAA, making his Major League debut in September. Dozier played eight games for the Kansas City Royals, all in the corner outfield, and hit .211/.286/.263. His first career hit was a rocket line drive double (albeit on the receiving end of a total blowout):

Dozier’s recent momentum screeched to a halt after he suffered a Grade 2 oblique strain at the beginning of April. He was placed on the 60-day disabled list, and just before Memorial Day Weekend he began his rehab stint at A+ Wilmington; he’s now moved his rehab to AAA Omaha. When Dozier returns from his rehab stint, even if he only goes back to the minor leagues, the Royals will need to put him back on their 40-man roster. This is going to be the easy part—the Royals only have 39 players on the 40-man right now anyway. The harder part is figuring out just where on earth Dozier fits in the organization.

Seriously—what is Dozier’s place right now?

Dozier was drafted as a shortstop—but he’s not played shortstop since his very first minor league season, and only a handful of games at that. Even if we magically consider him an eventual option there, he’s behind Alcides Escobar, Raul Mondesi, and Ramon Torres on the depth chart.

Dozier played third base for the majority of his minor league career. But Mike Moustakas is on pace to set the Royals single-season record for home runs in a season, and the Royals still love Cheslor Cuthbert—who, importantly, has no options left and cannot be sent to the minor leagues without being exposed to waivers.

Dozier has played first base some, too. Of course, Eric Hosmer is firmly entrenched as a first baseman. And Ryan O’Hearn, who might just be Hosmer’s eventual replacement, is at AAA Omaha right now. So is Frank Schwindel, who crushed AA Northwest Arkansas this year and is a year younger than Dozier (though he is not a first round pick, Schwindel, like O’Hearn, has nowhere else to play).

Perhaps the most likely spot that Dozier will play at the Major League level is in the corner outfield, where he played all of his games as a Kansas City Royal in his September callup. But Dozier is equally blocked there. The Two Jorges—Bonifacio and Soler—are both right-handed bats with a bigger claim to the outfield than Dozier, Bonifacio because he’s been good and Soler because he was a major trade acquisition with big upside. Alex Gordon still exists, and at the very least he still plays Gold Glove defense. And Brandon Moss is a non-terrible option in the field himself, and is the only decent left-handed bat of the group.

Last September, I tried to get an answer on why the Royals weren’t playing much, or at all. Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star responded, and Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com tweeted about it a day later:

So where will he play? The short answer:

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The longer answer is that Dozier is too good to play nowhere, and he’ll play somewhere every day, but the Royals don’t have a clear idea on what to do with him. They prefer Cuthbert at third base, and they don’t like Dozier’s outfield defense yet. First base isn’t an option this year, either, what with Hosmer and Brandon Moss on the roster. Dozier’s handling reminds me a lot of how they handled Brandon Finnegan in 2015, which is to say they are handling him like they would a duck-billed platypus who wandered into the kitchen: with total confusion and zero idea where to put him. Finnegan, of course, was eventually used as trade bait, a fate that may apply to Dozier.

The most efficient use of Dozier would be sending him to the Major League roster to replace Cuthbert, who is not a good baseball player, and have him back up third base and be part of the corner outfield/designated hitter rotation. Dozier has started at both third base and right field in his rehab starts with the Omaha Storm Chasers, so the Royals appear to at least be keeping both those options open for him.

In a way, though, only one thing matters. One of the defining features of Dayton Moore and Ned Yost is that they have clear favorites among their players: an “in” group that gets repeated chances regardless of how productive they are, and an “out” group where no amount of good production is consistently rewarded. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Whit Merrifield, Chris Getz, Cheslor Cuthbert, Alcides Escobar, and Raul Mondesi are or were part of the “in” group. Johnny Giavotella, John Lamb, Kila Ka’aihue, Brett Eibner, Christian Colon, Mitch Maier, and Jose Martinez are or were part of the “out” group.

What happens to Dozier ultimately depends on which of those groups he is in. Dozier has performed admirably at multiple levels since the start of 2016, but it doesn’t matter if Dozier hasn’t passed whatever test needs to be passed to get in the “in” group. The Royals cut ties with Colon, a first round pick out of college, after never really giving him a shot. They could very well do the same with Dozier. Or not; we’ll see soon either way.