It was a sad day in Kansas City on February 19 when first baseman Eric Hosmer — who had been flirting all offseason with the idea of re-signing with the team that drafted him and likely spending the rest of his career in a Royals uniform — signed an eight-year, $144 million contract with the Padres. The 28-year-old Hosmer helped the Royals win two straight AL pennants in 2014-15 and a World Series in ‘15, and though he may not have been the best player on either of those teams (you could also make a good argument for Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, or Wade Davis) his relative youth seemed to make him the veteran among the Royals’ trio of big-money free agents — Hosmer, Cain, and Mike Moustakas — who would be best equipped to help the Royals successfully avoid a total teardown and long-term rebuilding project.
Even with Hosmer’s imperfections — factoring in the caveat that he played in a pitchers’ park, his power was a bit less potent than that of most first basemen, his offense was somewhat inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, and certain areas of his defensive game earned criticism over the years — his loss was still viewed by most as a fairly major one for the Royals. Beyond 2017 first-rounder Nick Pratto, a 19-year-old who is projected by MLB Pipeline to reach the majors in 2021, the organization didn’t have a star first base prospect, and clearly ownership wasn’t going to go out and buy a big-money free agent to bridge the gap to Pratto.
Though they ended up bringing back Moustakas back on a team-friendly deal in mid-March, Hosmer’s departure essentially forced the Royals’ front office to confront the inevitability of a rebuild — one that some observers believed should have begun a season or two ago, even as Kansas City remained in playoff contention into September in both 2016-17. The Royals initially frustrated some fans — and understandably so — by plugging in veteran stopgap options such as free-agent signees Moustakas and Alcides Escobar (both of whom were brought back on one-year deals) as well as Jon Jay, Lucas Duda, Ryan Goins, Blaine Boyer, and waiver claim Abraham Almonte, rather than just giving all the avilable playing time to young, unproven players. Five-and-a-half months later, though, the rebuild is a full go, with all of those stopgap veterans having been traded or released with the exception of Escobar, who has been relegated to a part-time utility role.
Though the Royals have fought through one of the roughest seasons in franchise history — and they very well may break the record for the most losses in a season in the 50-year existence of the team — they’ve turned things around in a fairly significant way over the last three weeks, as they possess a 10-6 record in September and have won five of their last seven series. One of the key players at center of that surge has been none other than Ryan O’Hearn, the latest player who has received an opportunity to succeed Hosmer as the Royals’ everyday first baseman — and by far the one who has achieved the most success.
Since having his contract purchased from Triple-A Omaha on July 31, O’Hearn has hit .277/.381/.655 with eight doubles, two triples, 11 homers, and 27 RBI — a total that is notable mainly because O’Hearn has started only 34 games and has hit sixth or lower in the lineup in 19 of them. He’s also walked in 13.7% of his 139 plate appearances.
Entering Monday, O’Hearn had the second-highest OPS (1.284) in the majors against right-handed pitching since the All-Star break, trailing only Mike Trout and leading stars such as Justin Turner, Christian Yelich, and Shohei Ohtani. The left-handed hitting slugger was one of just 11 players in major-league history to have seven homers and 19 RBI in his first 21 major-league games — becoming part of a list that also includes big names such as Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Carlos Delgado, and Albert Pujols — and was one of only eight ever to have nine homers and 22 RBI in their first 24 MLB games.
Granted, concerns remain about the 25-year-old first baseman. O’Hearn is 2 for 33 with four walks (both of those hits are homers, for what it’s worth) against left-handers to begin his major-league career. He began the season ranked as the No. 18 prospect in the Royals’ system by MLB Pipeline but had dropped out of the top 30 by midseason (he plummeted in a major way after peaking at No. 7 on the Royals prospect list in 2016). He also passed through the Rule 5 Draft unclaimed last year. Considering that information in addition to the fact that he’s enjoying more success right now than he ever did in the upper minors, it’s possible that he won’t even come close to sustaining this success long-term.
It’s rather easy for Royals fans to push those concerns to the side for now, though, simply because O’Hearn has provided more value to his team this year than Hosmer has done in San Diego in roughly a fifth of the plate appearances. Coming into Monday — a day on which O’Hearn went 2 for 4 with a double and a homer while Hosmer went 0 for 4 — O’Hearn had accumulated 1.2 WAR in his roughly six weeks in the big leagues, while Hosmer had accumulated 1.0 WAR for the full season via Baseball-Reference’s wins above replacement calculation.
While Hosmer hasn’t had the brutal type of first year that big-money free agents like Jason Heyward, Ian Desmond, and Pablo Sandoval have had in recent seasons, he hasn’t been particularly good, either. He’s hitting .249/.314/.398 in 631 plate appearances, and while it would’ve been foolish to expect that he’d hit for exceptional power playing his home games in Petco Park, it’s somewhat alarming that he’s hit only 17 homers — just six more than O’Hearn in 492 more plate appearances. His .712 OPS ranks 19th among 22 qualified major-league first basemen this season (and one of the players below him is Chris Davis, arguably the worst hitter in the big leagues this year). That’s certainly not the most encouraging sign for an organization that is seven months removed from giving him the largest contract in franchise history.
To be fair, it won’t really be warranted to label Hosmer a “bust” (or definitively worse than O’Hearn) until we see what he does next season, as he’s strangely been great in odd years and mediocre or bad in even years during his eight-year major-league career. Hosmer posted a park-adjusted OPS+ of 118 (with league-average being 100) as a rookie in 2011, an 81 in 2012, 118 in 2013, 99 in 2014, 122 in 2015, 102 in 2016, 133 last year, and 98 (coming into Monday’s game) this season. The Padres had that knowledge when they signed him, and it would have been virtually impossible for them to justify the deal unless they thought that it was just a (very long-lasting) statistical quirk. Even if Hosmer does turn it around next year, though, he’s now getting paid at a level where he needs to produce every year — the Padres didn’t give him a nine-figure deal with the idea that he’d only help them out in odd years, and he’ll need to start being an impactful even-year hitter in 2020 and beyond. The Hosmer signing also forced 27-year-old Wil Myers — who is basically a right-handed hitting, more consistent version of Hosmer from an offensive perspective — from first base, where he is a good defender, to third base, where he has been among the league’s worst since his move across the infield.
Even with Hosmer being a four-time Gold Glover, it’s possible that the Royals will see a long-term defensive upgrade by not having him at first base. Defensive metrics are more flawed at first base than they are at any other position besides catcher, and my personal stance on them is that while defensive runs saved are largely representative of a first baseman’s ability, range-based stats like UZR and UZR/150 tend to be extremely overvalued when it comes to evaluating first basemen. Hosmer has done a good job of making the routine plays at first throughout his career, and that’s continued this year as he’s posted five defensive runs saved. With that said, Hosmer has been below-average compared to other qualified major-league first baseman when it comes to measuring range. His -3.5 UZR ranks 50th among 53 players with at least 200 innings at the position this season. Using FanGraphs’ defensive rating stat, which factors in fielding runs above average adjusted to the difficulty of a player’s position, he ranks worst among that group with a -14.4 rating. (All of those numbers are updated entering play on Monday.) Hosmer’s lack of range isn’t a new development — he has a -3.3 UZR/150 for his career, and his defense was often criticized by metrically-inclined folks as he racked up Gold Gloves in Kansas City.
In contrast, O’Hearn — who had played 204 innings at first coming into Monday — ranks 14th among that group with a -3.1 defensive rating. He’s tied for 25th in defensive runs saved (-1) and ranks 42nd in UZR (-1.3). That’s a small sample size, and first base defensive metrics aren’t exceptionally accurate anyway, but if he stays around this level of performance, he’ll be a solid first baseman who might never win a Gold Glove but won’t hurt his team too much in the field (and the whole Gold Glove thing might not mean much anyway, considering Hosmer’s predicament). O’Hearn is pretty clearly rangier and more athletic than Hosmer, and he has youth on his side to a greater extent than the soon-to-be 29-year-old does.
Considering that the franchise’s value has gone from $96 million to approximately $1.015 billion (via Forbes) under the ownership of David Glass and that the Royals cultivated a loyal, passionate fan base by reaching two straight World Series earlier this decade, money really shouldn’t be that huge of a concern. It obviously must be pointed out, though, that O’Hearn is making the pro-rated portion of the $545,000 major-league minimum and isn’t even scheduled to be arbitration-eligible until after the 2021 season, while Hosmer will make $21 million this year and in each subsequent season through 2022, then make $13 million each season from 2023-25. If you can pay a player a salary in the mid-six figures rather than $21 million over the next few years and receive equal or better production, it’s highly advantageous to do so, and those savings theoretically should free up Royals ownership to spend in other areas (i.e. for more effective starting pitching and bullpen help).
With the current state of the AL Central — no team really seems to have a firm grasp on first place beyond 2018 — perhaps the Royals will be able to compete for a division title again sooner than anyone expected now that guys like O’Hearn, Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier, and Jorge Soler have found success at the major-league level. After all, the White Sox and Tigers are in the midst of their own rebuilds (with Chicago’s being much more organized and advanced than Detroit’s), and the Twins arguably lack direction more so than any other franchise across baseball right now. With the young infield duo of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez and the presence of Corey Kluber in the rotation, the Indians will have elite talent for years to come. But in a way, Cleveland may have to go through its own retooling process after this season; Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, and Lonnie Chisenhall, along with the recently-acquired Josh Donaldson, are free agents this offseason, and with the Indians historically being economical at best and thrify at worse when it comes to free agency, it’s questionable whether any of them will return. Jason Kipnis openly admitted that this era of success may be nearing a close as the club celebrated clinching the AL Central on Saturday, saying “Just to be able to do it again with this group — it might be our last chance together. It’s special, because that’s all we hoped for, that’s all we wanted to start this year, to get another chance.” They’re top-heavy right now, and if they don’t re-sign some of those free agents or add some more solid complementary pieces this offseason, they might be susceptible to the same type of sudden decline that has afflicted teams like the Reds, Giants, and Mets this decade.
Obviously, if the Royals are going to turn things around soon, it’s going to require not only continued consistency from this young collection of position players, but more importantly an uptick in consistency from the starting rotation — one that has gotten encouraging seecond-half results from the young quartet of Brad Keller, Jakob Junis, Heath Fillmyer, and Jorge Lopez — and an improved bullpen, which frankly is a major area of focus since their relievers have posted a collective 5.05 ERA in 2018. If Dayton Moore and company have proven anything over the past several years, though, it’s that they can pull effective relievers out of unexpected places; they’ve gotten surprisingly great results from relievers such as Wade Davis, Ryan Madson, Franklin Morales, Jason Frasor, Scott Alexander, Mike Minor, and Peter Moylan over the last half-decade. They didn’t succeed with that task this year — and part of that was due to the fact that they had so many spots to fill after turning over nearly their entire bullpen — but it’ll be interesting to see if the trend resumes in 2019.
Even if the Royals are still a few years away, though, at least they’ve discovered a player who has a solid chance to be part of their next winning core. Just seven months ago, Hosmer’s signing in San Diego looked to be a development that would destroy the Royals’ chances of competing for years to come. But as the offseason nears, it now looks like it might be a blessing in disguise — one that both created an opportunity for an imposing young hitter in O’Hearn and prevented them from having to spend a large chunk of their payroll for nearly a decade into the future on Hosmer, who looks like he may never be reliably consistent.