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May 12, 2011

Future Shock

Second Thoughts on Hosmer

by Kevin Goldstein

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If you are a prospect hound, the last week has made some sort of live baseball package a must. On Thursday, the Royals called up Eric Hosmer, arguably the best hitting prospect at the upper levels. On Saturday, the Braves called up Julio Teheran, arguably the best pitching prospect at the upper levels. On Sunday, the Red Sox promoted Jose Iglesias, the best defensive shortstop in the minors.

The Teheran and Iglesias promotions require little analysis. Teheran's start against the Phillies on Saturday was the product of a doubleheader and the fact that his turn was up in the Triple-A rotation. Iglesias is just a temporary fill-in for the injured Marco Scutaro, and is present to provide late-inning defense and speed off the bench. Hosmer is a different story. He's not only in Kansas City far earlier than expected, but he's presumably here to stay. But was the timing of the move a sound decision by the Royals or something they will regret down the road?

Let's gets the easy part out of the way: There's little argument that Hosmer is ready to perform at the major-league level. After all, his batting line of .439/.535/.583 in 26 games for Triple-A Omaha looks like something out of the college game before they deadened the bats. This isn't about talent; it's about the mirage of a hot start, winning environments and, of course, money.

I'll admit that I got caught up in the excitement myself. Within 24 hours of Hosmer's arrival at Kauffman Stadium, I did two radio shows in Kansas City, and both times I praised the move and talked about the beginning of a new era in Royals baseball. But wisdom may have come with time, and now I'm thinking that's all a bunch of hogwash.

Last week, I discussed the how the Indians’ hot start had affected their philosophies about bringing up young players this year. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds backed up their excitement, with Cleveland’s surprising April bolstering their chances of reaching the postseason more than ten-fold to greater than 30 percent. That's not the case with the Royals. While having a record above .500 might be an even bigger surprise than what Cleveland is doing, it hasn't moved the needle on the playoff odds, which pegged their chances of post-season baseball at 0.9 percent heading into Wednesday's games. For you folks that just blew your paycheck at Saturday's Kentucky Derby, that's a 111-to-1 longshot that one prospect, even one as good as Eric Hosmer, just can't change to something more realistic.

So why now? Why not wait until other big names at Triple-A, like third baseman Mike Moustakas, and left-handed starters Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery, were deemed ready? Clearly the struggles of Kila Ka'aihue played a role, but one front-office veteran questions the thought of throwing Hosmer to the wolves alone. “If I'm in the Royals front office, I'm fighting like hell to keep him down,” said the National League executive. “Why bring him up on a team whose big three are Kyle Davies, Bruce Chen, and Jeff Francis? If they wanted to bring up Montgomery, Duffy, and all of those guys and let them take their collective lumps, then OK, I get it. Buy why just him when they have all these washed-up guys and limited playoff chances?”

Maybe the Royals don't believe the playoff odds, and that's fine. They see a surprising start, an American League Central division turned upside down, and a rare window of opportunity. Still, this is gravy to part of the master plan for long-term contention, and calling up Hosmer could impact the Royals’ financial flexibility down the road. The promotion does not change Hosmer's potential free agency when it crosses the six-year service time barrier, but assuming no radical changes in the upcoming CBA, it does likely make him a Super Two following the 2013 campaign. That's one less year of a cost-controlled star, and that year could be expensive.

Let’s assume for a moment that everything works out for the Royals, and the best system in baseball transforms them into a legitimately competitive team, unlike the early 2011 smoke-and-mirrors act. Let’s also assume that Hosmer is a big part of that success, quickly establishing himself as one of the best young hitters in the game. Now going into the 2014 season, the Royals are favorites to win the Central, and instead of having Hosmer under control, he's now subject to arbitration, and thus due a big pay day. The Royals don't have unlimited finances, and that multi-million deal that could have been avoided by waiting one more month three years ago suddenly limits the team in adding the pieces that might put them over the top. You still sure this was the right time for the Royals to unwrap their shiny new toy? Even if Hosmer is immediately great, say, a six-win player, that one month of impatience cost the team millions of dollars three years later for a single extra victory in a season where the odds say overwhelmingly that it just won't matter.

The only argument against this is the concept of the Royals following the lead of the early 1990s Indians teams that produced young players and then locked them up to long-term deals that bought out their arbitration and some free-agent years. On Saturday, I was discussing this via text messages with a veteran scout. After mentioning the thought of locking Hosmer up, I walked away from my phone, only to return to a series of messages, presented here with time stamps to preserve the humor.

20:17: Boras. Laughable. Keep reminding me of that. I need a good laugh.
20:20: I'm laughing again. Boras. Lock them up. Comical.
20:26: Hahaha. Laughing again. Boras. Long term. Lock them up. Awesome [expletive]!!!!!
21:11: Laughing again.

The Royals created plenty of excitement with Hosmer's ascension to the big leagues, and I'm the first to admit that I got caught up in it. Just a few days later, I'm wondering if the team will eventually have the same second thoughts that I'm bothered by.

              A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  Eric Hosmer

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