The Royals and the ‘Dozier-Dilemma’

The Royals lost 7-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays in their first game after the All-Star break at Kauffman Stadium on Friday. In all honesty, the loss wasn’t entirely surprising, especially with the Rays 52-41 and fighting for a playoff spot in the AL Wild Card race.

On the other hand, it was the first game for the Royals sporting the return of the players who missed time in Toronto due to being unvaccinated, so the fanbase has been more charged than usual.

While the Royals went 1-3 during the four-game stretch north of the border against the Jays, the play of the “young” Royals squad seemed to fire up a Royals fanbase that had been disenchanted and frustrated for the most part in 2022. The “restricted list” 10 not only returned, but fail to do much against the Rays on Friday night. That didn’t exactly bode well with Royals fans, whether it was online or at Kauffman.

While there are many fans that would have preferred to give more of the young Royals players an extended shot, there seems to be some hope on the horizon when it comes to shaking up this Royals roster in the second half.

Whit Merrifield and Andrew Benintendi seem to be firmly in trade talks, and based on recent reports, it seems like the New York Yankees have emerged as the “favorite” when it comes to acquiring Benintendi before the August 2nd Trade Deadline. This is a surprise since the Yankees play in the AL East, which would eliminate Benny from playing games for the Yankees against their division foe in Toronto.

The trade market has also seemed to heat up on Whit, as the Mariners and Dodgers are among the favorites to acquire the longtime Royals utility player. And while Michael A. Taylor, Scott Barlow (who was vaccinated), and Brad Keller have not been explicitly mentioned lately, they could be throw-ins to Whit or Benny deals in order to strengthen the trade return.

And yet, one player who remains in peculiar situation from that unvaccinated bunch is Hunter Dozier.

The 30-year-old corner outfielder/infielder has seen a bit of a bounce back from a disastrous 2021 campaign. Dozier is currently slashing .266/.326/.444 with a 117 wRC+ and 0.4 fWAR in 78 games and 313 plate appearances, and he’s also managed to stay healthy after dealing with various injuries in 2021 (thumb) and 2020 (COVID).

Granted, Dozier continues to be an enigma in the field, which has been the case for him for most of his career.

He pretty much has struggled defensively this year overall, as he sporting an outs above average mark (OAA) of -1 overall, according to Savant. He’s primarily been bad in right field (-2 OAA), and at third base (-1 OAA), though he hasn’t played much at the latter position this year (thank God).

While he’s been slightly better defensively at first (1 OAA), Dozier will probably see a decline in playing time there with the recent call-up of Nick Pratto, who was a Minor League Gold Glove winner in 2021.

With Vinnie Pasquantino getting the primary designated hitter duties, Dozier is in a precarious playing-time situation in Kansas City. He just recently signed an extension with the Royals before last season, so the Royals have some long-term investment in him. However, he doesn’t fit in the “position puzzle” in Kansas City, both this year and beyond, when more Royals position prospects most likely debut (i.e. Drew Waters, Michael Massey, etc.).

Thus, what will Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo do with Dozier, as his complicated situation will only become more amplified once Whit and Benny (and maybe a couple of more) or traded away over the next couple of weeks?


What Does Dozier Provide to the Royals Lineup?

Dozier’s reputation has been a polarizing one in Kansas City, especially over the past couple of years after he signed a long-term extension that will keep him here until at least 2024.

Last year, the former Royals first round pick struggled immensely at the plate, as he posted a slash of .216/.285/.394 with 16 home runs and a wRC+ of 82 in 144 games and 543 plate appearances. Dozier particularly struggled in the first half of 2021, as he only hit .174 and posted a 52 wRC+ over that time span. His performance though in the second half was much more tolerable, as he hit .261 in the second half and generated a wRC+ of 109.

A big issue that plagued Dozier in the first half was a lingering thumb injury that, according to reports, altered his swing, and thus, suppressed his production. Once his thumb injury fully healed after the All-Star break, Dozier looked more like the hitter that he once was back in 2020 as well as in 2019, which was his breakout campaign.

This year, Dozier has stayed healthy, and as a result, he’s posted much more consistent production.

Of current Royals hitters, he’s tied for third in home runs with nine (along with MJ Melendez); tied for first in doubles with 18 (along with Bobby Witt, Jr. and Whit); fourth in wOBA at .335; and tied for fourth in barrel rate at 9.2 percent (along with Emmanuel Rivera).

When looking at his percentile rankings via Savant, Dozier has been a perfectly serviceable middle-of-the order hitter for the Royals, even if he hasn’t quite been spectacular by any stretch of the imagination.

While Dozier gives the Royals some power upside, especially in the middle of the order, he also has a free-swinging approach that doesn’t quite fit into the mold of what hitting coordinators Alex Zumwalt and Drew Saylor are trying to promote within the Royals organizaiton.

Of Royals hitters with 50 or more plate appearances this year, Dozier ranks 8th in BB/K ratio (0.33) and fourth-to-last in O-Swing (swings outside the strike zone) percentage (34.9 percent); contact rate (74.3 percent); and swinging-strike rate (12.8 percent). While Dozier can certainly produce some runs for the Royals in the middle of the lineup with his power, his inconsistent plate approach has unfortunately hurt the Royals in key situations, and that is evident in his clutch rating this year, which is third-lowest of Royals hitters.

Therefore, while Dozier’s power profile is welcomed in the Royals lineup as of now, one has to wonder how it will fare long-term, especially once Salvador Perez and Edward Olivares come off the IL, whether it’s at the end of this year or next Spring.


Does Dozier Have Value on the Trade Market?

Without a set position, and a streaky composition at the plate, it makes sense for the Royals to shop Dozier on the trade market, especially since honestly he has a better offensive profile than Merrifield and Taylor currently. Already some fans have thrown him out as a possibility, even though his name hasn’t really been mentioned often in “hot stove” rumors as of late.

While the nine home runs and .178 ISO don’t exactly pop out to opposing MLB teams, one has to understand that Dozier does play in the incredibly pitcher-friendly Kauffman Stadium for his home games. His 141 wRC+ is 50 points higher on the road than at home (90), and his xHR (expected home run) numbers also suggest that he would be a double-digit home run hitter currently if he played more games away from the K.

In addition, I decided to compare Dozier to Daniel Vogelbach, the former Pittsburgh slugger who was recently traded to the New York Mets.

If one looks at their profiles compratively, there isn’t a whole lot of difference on the offensive end between Dozier and Vogelbach, with Vogelbach hitting for more consistent power, and Dozier hitting better on a batting average-end.

And again, if you put Dozier in a more hitter-friendly stadium, then it isn’t out of the question to think that Doz will significantly out-produce Vogelbach by the end of the 2022 season.

So why don’t other teams pull the trigger?

Unfortunately, Dozier’s contract makes it really difficult for the Royals to trade him, even to a wealthier team that has a significant offensive need.

Other than Salvy, no other Royal currently has a longer guaranteed deal than Dozier, according to Roster Resource payroll data. Dozier is also set to see big pay bumps over the next couple of years as well. He is currently making $4.75 million this year, but that rate goes up to $7.5 million in 2023 and $9.25 million in 2024. There is a mutual option for $10 million for 2025, but he will be about 35-years-old then, and thus, it is likely that the Royals would just pay the buyout to avodi the option, if he is still around in Kansas City.

For a team to trade for Dozier, they need to see him as a player who can be productive for at least a couple of more years, if not more, beyond this season. Honestly, I am not sure a lot of Royals fans believe he can do that, especially with his past injury issues, and struggles with plate discipline.

And if Royals fans aren’t quite believing that, then it’s pretty guaranteed that opposing clubs aren’t feeling any differently, which means that the Royals would have to throw in a significant prospect or two, or eat a significant amount of money, which may be EXTREMELY difficult to do with multiple years left on Dozier’s deal.

Doing it for the remainder of the season with Carlos Santana is one thing. Doing it with two more years AFTER this season? Well, that’a near impossible feat, especially for a player like Dozier who will be 31-years-old pretty soon.


What Should Royals Fans Expect With Dozier Going Forward?

There is a possibility that a contending team will look to trade for Dozier by the August Trade Deadline, especially if a team is beset by an injury at first base or DH in the next couple of weeks.

That being said, it is most likely that Dozier will probably still be a Kansas City Royal after the August Trade Deadline passes.

It’s not that the Royals necessarily want to “hold” onto Dozier. It’s just that his contract right now doesn’t really make him all that moveable of a piece, especially in the middle of the season. Not only would he be owed the remainder of his $4.75 million deal this year, but he would be owed $16.75 million over the next two seasons as well. That is a significan financial committment, especially if a club is not committed to him for at least a few more seasons.

On the other hand, playing Dozier in Kansas City may not be a bad thing.

According to ZiPS ROS (rest of season) projections, he is projected to hit eight home runs, garner 25 RBI, produce a slash of .246/.313/.439, and add 0.3 fWAR to his current totals as of July 23rd. It is highly likely that Dozier will surpass those projections, like he’s done in the first half of the 2022 season, which will not only help the Royals on the field, but boost his value in the offseason.

If Dozier can reach the 20 HR mark, and be in that 1.0-1.5 fWAR for the remainder of the year, it is likely that he will generate the interest of some teams this offseason. That will be especially true with teams looking for upgrades at the first base or desginated hitter position (or right field or third, if they do not care about defense).

Here’s a look at where Dozier stands when comapred to other qualified first baseman in the league:

On a wRC+ end, he actually ranks 16th, in the same ballpark as Baltimore’s Ryan Mountcastle and Texas’ Nate Lowe, and ahead of other names like former Royal Eric Hosmer, Miami’s Jesus Aguilar and the Angels’ Jared Walsh.

When divided by two, Dozier would only be making an AAV of $8.38 million roughly in 2023 and 2024. That’s not a terrible value for a fringe-20 HR guy who won’t lose as much value defensively if he can get more everyday at-bats in the DH spot for another club. Plus, his numbers would also inflate in a more hitter-friendly park, and one has to wonder what Dozier’s numbers would look like if he played his home games at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, or Coors Field in Denver, just to name a few.

As tough as it may be to stomach for Royals fans now, especially with the excitement generated by young players like Pratto, Nate Eaton and Michael Massey in this past Toronto series, the Royals should continue to keep playing Dozier with the hope that he can have as solid a finish in the second half, like he did back in 2021. If that happens, he becomes a much more desirable trade candidate this offseason, or at the deadline next year, especially if he continues to produce metrics in 2023 that reflect similarly to his 2022 totals.

Because the bottom line is this: it’ll be much easier for teams to take a flyer on him if they see multi-year value out of him.

He’s not a player who’s going to take a team over-the-top in a playoff race. However, he can be a nice middle to bottom of the order power piece for a variety of different teams, especially those who want to get decent production at a fair value.

Good first baseman and DH-types can cost in the AAV range of $10-12 million, so Dozier could be a bargain for a club looking for temporary production for a couple of years at those positions. And if he doesn’t produce in 2023, he’ll be a lot easier to let go with only one year remaining than multiple seasons.

It won’t be easy to be patient with Dozier, especially in the midst of the “unvaccinated” controversy polarizing this Royals fanbase. One could argue that his comments were arguably just as bad as Whit’s, as Royal Review’s Matt Lamar pointed out on Twitter:

But the playing time situation with Dozier will be a lot more tolerabe once Benny and Whit (and likely Taylor) are traded away. In their absence, Dozier will be blocking fewer position players, including Massey and Eaton, who are expected to return to Kansas City once those trades happen.

If the Royals want to get anything of value for Dozier in an offseason trade or mid-season deal in 2023, they will need Dozier to continue to hit and showcase his power, whcih can be sensational at times, as seen in this solo home run in Houston off Astros starter Cristian Javier.

Dozier will not be going anywhere for the remainder of the 2022 season…

But the better he does at the plate this year, the more likely he WON’T be back in Kansas City in 2023 or 2024.

Royals fans just need to be patient, which hasn’t been easy to do during a rough season like this.

Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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