‘Home Sweet Hos?’: Will Eric Hosmer return to Kansas City?

The Royals showed some positive signs as an organization in 2020 despite the COVID-shortened campaign. They were only eight games under .500, and were in the playoff hunt until the very end of the season. However, it still felt like a rebuilding club at times, which has been the Royals’ modus operandi since the conclusion of the 2017 season.

Since 2017, the Royals have seen their Competitive Balance Tax 40-man payroll go from north of $186 million in 2017 (which ranked 8th in the league) to a shade under $97 million in 2020 (which would ranked 26th in the league). Furthermore, in addition to slashing payroll, the Royals have invested heavily in the draft, international scouting, and player development the last three years, which in turn has made their farm system a “fast riser” in the prospect rankings (the Royals ranked 29th in farm system rankings according to Baseball America 2018 Prospect Handbook; now they are in the 10-15 range, depending on which expert you refer to).

However, it seems like the Royals are prepared to take the next step in 2021, even if their 26-34 season was only over an “abbreviated” campaign. Here is what Royals.com beat writer Jeff Flanagan said at the end of his most recent Royals mailbag:

Timeline for rebuild?
— @RudolphAdams6

The rebuild is over. The Royals want to win now.

“Inbox: What’s the LF outlook without Gordon?” by Jeff Flanagan; Royals.com

Hence, it seems like general manager Dayton Moore, manager Mike Matheny and the Royals organization as a whole is under the same mindset: they are ready to move forward as a team and perhaps make a run in the American League Central and playoff race in general in 2021. While that may seem like an ambitious and perhaps even far-reaching goal, that could change if the Royals made a big trade or free agent move, which isn’t out of the realm of plausibility (as implied by Flanagan). The Royals pitching was as good as advertised thanks to a stellar bullpen as well as a boost in the rotation from Brady Singer and Kris Bubic,. Furthermore, the starting pitching could be even better in 2021 if Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar or Asa Lacy gets a crack in the rotation at some point.

However, the Royals offense left a little to be desired, especially with Jorge Soler struggling through injury, and the lineup lacking consistency at the bottom of the order. And thus, it would make sense that Moore could boost this Royals lineup this off-season with the acquisition of a veteran bat, whether it is through trade or free agency.

A potential solution to this problem, though he could come at quite the cost, may be former Royal and current Padre, Eric Hosmer.

Photo by Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The idea of Hosmer returning to KC has certainly been thrown around by many different sources among the Royals “blog-o-sphere”. Clint Scoles of Royals Academy, in his latest “Minor Thoughts”, seemed encouraged by the idea of bringing along Hosmer back to KC, albeit with some caveats:

With a Mitch Moreland club option available, the Padres might be looking to save some money on that payroll with a Hosmer trade. The Hosmer contract gets friendlier in ’23-25 when it drops to $13m per year, but some contract relief would likely be needed in ’21 and ’22 when he earns $21m per season. A deal built around Hosmer and Hunter Dozier with the Padres sending back a good prospect and a little cash to offset the early money could make sense for both sides. Someone like Hudson Head, a five-toolish outfielder, would fit the Royals likes.

“Minor Thoughts 10/16/2020” by Clint Scoles; Royals Academy

Matthew LaMar of “Royals Review” also echoed some of the same thoughts as Scoles, saying that Hosmer could fill a gap at first base/DH, and the Royals could also continues to acquire talent from a loaded Padres farm system:

There’s also the fact that the Royals have a pretty wide open hole at first base, and one at DH, too. Ryans O’Hearn and McBroom are clearly not the answer at this point, and Hunter Dozier can handle a corner outfield spot just fine. Meanwhile, the Royals’ best first base prospect, Nick Pratto, put up a putrid wRC+ of 73 in his 2019 minor league season. Jorge Soler has been the primary designated hitter for the past few years, but Soler is a free agent after next season, and Lord knows the Royals don’t have enough quality bats to adequately fill that spot by committee right now.

But the real reason why the Royals would want to acquire Hosmer would be because they could also probably pick up prospects in the deal. Hosmer’s past performance, age, contract size, and contract structure means he has significant negative value in a trade. According to Baseball America, the Padres have the second-best farm system in baseball, so they have plenty of variety and a deep well to draw from. To pick up Hosmer and a legit prospect or two, for free, would be a creative way to gather resources and boost fan buy-in during this portion of the rebuild.

“I kinda want an Eric Hosmer reunion even though it’s a bad idea” by Matthew LaMar; Royals Review

Hence, I am not going to bring up any new perspectives from what Clint and Matt already said. However, while initially the idea of bringing back Hosmer seemed absurd initially, the combination of Flanagan’s hinting that the Royals seem ready to push in their chips, and the Padres underwhelming performance in the NLDS to the Dodgers (with Hosmer being one of the culprits who failed to produce), make the the Hosmer “return to KC” more realistic if not palatable.

The Royals will certainly have payroll flexibility in the next two seasons, as Ian Kennedy and his team-high contract will come off the books, and Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez will be free agents as well after 2021. While the Royals will have some arbitration deals to figure out this off-season, especially in regard to Brad Keller, Adalberto Mondesi, and Jorge Soler, it seems likely that Moore won’t break the bank too much in those deals (though Keller may be the biggest exception). And thus, if the Royals want to “splurge” on a franchise-altering veteran, it would make sense to acquire someone who is familiar with the Royals and has produced in Kansas City before (not to mention already a fan favorite) rather than an “outside” player to the organization who may or may not have the impact desired. After all, for every James Shields, Wade Davis, and Ben Zobrist who comes in and changes the culture, there are examples of Juan Gonzalez, Billy Hamilton, and Brandon Moss who have failed to have much impact in terms of improving the Royals’ standings in the AL Central.

At the very least, Hosmer would not only be a steady step up in terms of production at the first-base position (especially in comparison to what the Royals have gotten the past three years from Lucas Duda, Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom), but he would also bring vocal leadership and a winning attitude to the Royals locker room. The latter was cultivated not just during his time in KC, but also over the past year, as he was a key figure in terms of helping a young Padres team find their groove down the stretch and in the Wild Card round against the St. Louis Cardinals.

If the Royals are truly “ready to compete” as Flanagan suggests, then Hosmer would make a lot of sense, even if he would come at a steep price, discount and prospects included.

Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images

The acquisition of Hosmer most likely would result in the end of the “Hunter Dozier” era in Kansas City, as the Royals will probably flip him in any deal regarding Hosmer with the Padres. A former first-round pick, Dozier has struggled to find a defensive position over his tenure in Kansas City, as he has rotated between third and right field before settling at first base down the stretch in 2020. Dozier showed some improved plate patience in 2020, but he only posted a .736 OPS and a slugging of .392, which is not ideal for a first-baseman in the American League. Furthermore, Dozier will be turning 30 next year, and has yet to really get through a full season unscathed by injury. While obviously Doz presents more upside than Hosmer, the Royals need stability if they want to compete, and Hosmer greatly outweighs Doz when it comes to stability at the plate.

While the idea of acquiring a $144 million-dollar player to Kansas City seems absurd, the idea isn’t too far-fetched when looking at the season Hosmer is coming off of. If other players on the Royals roster, such as Mondesi, Nicky Lopez, and any of the other outfielders in the Royals system, take the steps needed this off-season and in 2021 when it comes to improving, then the Hosmer deal could be the boost this organization desires.

Hosmer certainly disappointed in his first two years in San Diego, as he posted wRC+ metrics of 95 and 91, in 2018 and 2019, respectively. That being said, he seemed to improve his approach in 2020, and seemed to solve a lot of the “groundball issues” that not only plagued him during his first two years in San Diego, but also at times in Kansas City. His GB/FB rate was 1.35 this year, which is stark difference from his career 2.11 GB/FB rate. Furthermore, according to Statcast data, he posted the highest barrel rate of his career (10.3 percent), as well as highest hard hit rate of his career (47 percent). This was furthered aided by an 8.7 launch angle in 2020, which would be the highest LA in his career since Statcast started recording data in 2015.

Hosmer still is a free-swinger, but he did increase his contact rate to over 82 percent in 2020 (it was below 75 percent the past two years), which may be a sign that Hosmer is getting better at seeing the ball and improving his approach at the plate, which could tend to be wild, even back when he was a Royal. And thus, while the price tag may make Royals management uncomfortable, the Royals would be getting a productive hitter who could provide the kind of on-field production and clubhouse leadership that this organization sorely needs to be competitive again (especially in the wake of Alex Gordon’s retirement). Furthermore, it would be better for the Royals to invest in Hosmer, and let young outfielders such as Franchy Cordero and Edward Olivares prove themselves over a full season rather than acquire a wild card free agent outfielder like Jurickson Profar or Jackie Bradley, Jr. who may be at risk of becoming “Billy Hamilton 2.0”.

Moore will have a tough decision when it comes to the possibility of acquiring Hosmer, and the chips will certainly be stacked against the Royals financially. While new owner John Sherman has given Moore and the front office an open checkbook when it comes to paying Minor League players and acquiring talent through the draft and international market, Sherman has yet to see the Royals acquire a “big name” MLB player, either through trade or free agency. Hosmer could be the player that breaks that trend, and if Moore is able to acquire Hosmer (with some financial help from the Padres, of course), then this could be a sign that Sherman is proving to be a different kind of owner from his predecessor, David Glass.

Furthermore, the acquisition of Hosmer could be a sign for Royals fans that the Royals are indeed building and establishing a model that could lead to more lasting, as well as consistent success, at the Major League level sooner rather than later.

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