This may be the last week we see Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar in a Royals uniform, and many are using the opportunity to reminisce about their favorite moments with those boys in blue. If you haven’t already read Sam Mellinger’s excellent trip down memory lane, do so and keep the tissues handy.
I wanted to go back even further though, all the way to the beginning, when these young men first entered our lives. We didn’t know what the future held then, that they would be part of arguably the most successful era of Royals baseball ever, part of two American League champions and one World Champion. We didn’t know the Gold Gloves, All-Star appearances, ALCS and All-Star Game MVP Awards, and highlight reel plays that were ahead. They were just kids, and we were just hoping they’d give us something better than what was there before.
The 2006 Royals were 59-100 going into the last series of the year, in Detroit against the Tigers, who were tied for first with the Twins. If the Tigers could take care of business and the Twins at all stumbled, the Tigers would be division champs. If the Tigers took care of business, the Royals would stay ahead of the 61-98 Rays for the #1 pick in next year’s draft, a draft that was expected to feature top pitching prospect David Price of Vanderbilt.
Of course, the Royals swept the Tigers (forcing them to the Wild Card) and the Rays were swept. The Royals would have to pick second next June. In the meantime, a young kid from California was setting high school records. Mike Moustakas, of Chatsworth High School in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, set the state high school record for home runs in a season and was expected to be a top pick in the draft that summer.
Price went to the Rays, and the Royals were scared away from the asking price of high school pitcher Rick Porcello and Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters. Instead, they were rumored to be considering Indiana prep pitcher Jarrod Parker, Florida catcher Devin Mesoraco, Missouri State pitcher Ross Detwiler, and a California prep third baseman - Josh Vitters. Moustakas was also in their sights, but after talks with his advisor Scott Boras, many reports had the Royals down on their chances of selecting him. But in the end, they went with the upside of Moose, taking their chances they could sign him. Even that appeared to be in doubt, going right down to the wire, with Mike’s father overruling Boras and having his son sign with the club.
You can see in our draft day thread, the reactions were mixed. Moustakas didn’t seem to be as polished as Wieters, didn’t seem to be at a position of as much need as pitching, like Porcello (the Royals already had a third baseman in Alex Gordon!), and came with a hefty price tag. It wasn’t long before Moustakas was quieting doubters with his hitting prowess in the minors, smacking 36 home runs in the minors in 2010 (perhaps foreshadowing his future run at Steve Balboni’s record?)
Moose had some ups and downs once he got the big leagues. The low point was in 2014, his fourth big league season, when he was demoted to the minors in May after hitting .152/.223/.320 to start the year. Moose didn’t exactly set the world on fire after he returned, but he provided outstanding defense and improved enough to help the Royals land their first post-season spot since 1985. Then he adjusted his hitting approach, and his career took off with two All-Star appearances and the club home run record this year. The Royals never gave up on their chubby kid from California, even as the pundits and fans were calling for a change at third, and in the end, their faith was rewarded.
The first two picks of the 2008 draft were set, with the Rays deciding on prep infielder Tim Beckham and the Pirates taking the top college hitter, Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez. The consensus after that was - there was no consensus. Some loved Florida State catcher Buster Posey, while others were concerned his numbers were inflated from a favorable home park. Others like polished college bats like Georgia’s Gordon Beckham and South Carolina’s Justin Smoak. Still others felt pitching was a premium, arguing for college pitchers like Brian Matusz and local product Aaron Crow out of Missouri.
The Royals had shown they could deal with Scott Boras in 2007, so again they gambled they could sign a Boras pick in 2008, when they selected Florida prep first baseman Eric Hosmer with the third overall pick, again to mixed reviews on this site. Rany Jazyerli at the time, shared my view, that Hosmer was too much of a risk with more polished bats on the board. But he did have upside.
I made the argument that the odds Hosmer will be a better hitter three years from now than Smoak is today still holds, but I’ve heard from a few people who have said, in essence, yes: Hosmer might be a better hitter in three years, particularly in terms of power. Smoak could hit .290 in the majors with 25-30 homers and 70-80 walks. Hosmer could hit .320, but he could hit .260 as well, and we have no idea how many walks he’ll draw, but he has true 80 power potential, meaning he could hit 40 homers in a season. The tools are there for Hosmer to become the best power hitter the Royals have ever developed.
Hosmer never quite became that big power hitter that some expected, but Rany was right - Hosmer could hit .320, but he could hit .260 as well. Hosmer burst onto the scene with one of the best rookie seasons in Royals history, but then regressed badly the next year. That yo-yo performance would be maddening to some fans who saw the potential of what he could become, but did not see the consistent results.
Hosmer’s low point also came in 2014, when he hit just .260 with one home run over the first two months of the season, a slump the Royals could really not afford in their last year with James Shields under contract. Hosmer finished that season strong, then proved to be one of the most clutch hitters in Royals post-season history, banging a crucial triple off the wall in the Wild Card game, just the first of many amazing playoff moments for Hosmer that culminated in his dash home against the Mets in 2015 World Series.
Hosmer never became a big power hitter. Never drew a ton of walks. This is just the second time he has ever hit over .300. But I doubt a single Royals fan would trade his career and the moments he created for Justin Smoak.
Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar
In 2010, Zack Greinke was tired of losing. You can’t blame him too much, the Royals were still a laughinstock back then. I mean, Greinke led the league with a minuscule ERA of 2.16 in 2009, and the Royals gave him enough support to win....16 games. They lost 97 games that year, despite having the best pitcher on the planet. You can see how that would be frustrating.
We may forget now, but Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar were not Dayton Moore’s first choice in a return for Greinke. They asked the Blue Jays about top prospects - outfielder Travis Snider and pitcher Kyle Drabek, but Toronto was not willing to deal both. The Rangers had a deep farm system that could match the Royals’ needs with players like shortstop Elvis Andrus, outfielder Engel Beltre, and young pitchers like Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, but ultimately they couldn’t work out a deal.
The Royals did reportedly have a deal - with the Washington Nationals. The Nationals were rumored to willing to move pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, infielder Danny Espinosa, pitcher Drew Storen, and outfielder Michael Burgess. There was one hitch - Greinke had a no-trade clause and didn’t want to go to another perennial loser like the Nationals.
So the Royals had to go in a different direction, and a deal was struck with the Brewers. Even then, Dayton Moore had to personally convince Greinke that Milwaukee would be a good spot for him. Once Zack accepted the trade, the Royals had their deal - shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain, and pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress.
The trade was mostly met with a shrug. Is that all we got? Even the normally sunny Joe Posnanski was underwhelmed.
And so, those are the four guys — and you probably notice the same thing I do: There are no potential stars in the group. Not one. Oh, someone like Cain could emerge as a star, but it would be a surprise.
Lorenzo Cain had a fine minor league season in 2011, then got his chance as the everyday centerfielder in 2012. That lasted almost entirely one week before Cain went to catch a flyball in Oakland and....hurt his groin. The injury would keep him out two months. He missed 47 games in 2013, partly due to an oblique strain, and had his worst season. He had the reputation of being “oft-injured.”
Then, Cain did exactly what Posnanski said would be a surprise - he became a star. Cain found a way to stay on the field and hit .301, earning a reputation as one of the game’s best defensive outfielders. He was named 2014 ALCS MVP. The next year he was one of the best players in all of baseball, finishing third in MVP voting.
Alcides Escobar came to the Royals already a big-leaguer. He hit .293 in his second season with the club, in 2012, and the future looked bright. But in 2013 he slumped badly, hitting just .234/.259/.300 with fans furious at Ned Yost’s refusal to pinch-hit for him late in games. Yost explained he didn’t want to get into Escobar’s “dome”, hoping the experiences of hitting in games late would make him ready for clutch situations later on.
That proved to be - kinda right. Escobar - never anyone’s idea of an offensive shortstop - had a torrid ALCS in 2015, being named MVP after hitting .478/.481/.652 against the Blue Jays. He was an All-Star and won a Gold Glove that year, and has solidified a shortstop position that has been a revolving door in Kansas City for decades.
Maybe we will get another chapter with some of these guys. But the story in Kansas City is almost certainly done for some of them. Now the Royals will have a new generation of Royals. We don’t know what the future holds for them. They are certain to have low points in their careers much like Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, and Escobar did. Will their high points be as high? Only time will tell.
But in the beginning, we have hope.