Over and over and over again this time of year, Royals executives have known their future would depend on Eric Hosmer. Not just Hosmer. But he’s always been the key to all of this.
When the “Our Time” Royals of 2012 stunk, it was largely because Hosmer stunk. They fired the hitting coach because of it. When the 2014 Royals stunk early, it was largely because Hosmer stunk early, and again they changed hitting coaches. When that same team won the 2014 AL Wild Card Game, it was largely because of Hosmer’s triple in the 12th.
And when the 2015 Royals won the World Series, Hosmer had a terrific season, and huge moments in the playoffs, including the mad dash home in New York.
Now, perhaps one last time, Hosmer will determine the future of the Royals.
This time, for more than one season.
Royals officials are making it clear that Hosmer is their top offseason priority. If they are able to re-sign him, they will try to shed some payroll and make an aggressive offer to Mike Moustakas or Lorenzo Cain. If Hosmer signs somewhere else, the Royals will move to a contingency plan.
You probably won’t like the contingency plan.
But, first, let’s talk about how they might sign Hosmer.
The Yankees will be in need of a first baseman, and if the Yankees want Hosmer, the Royals are not going to win a bidding war. The Red Sox will also presumably be shopping.
The Royals’ strongest recruiting pitch to their own free agents was made last weekend, when they turned the last homestand into their own version of Senior Day.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore has never directly played on sentiment in negotiations. He hasn’t done it in extending contracts to homegrown stars, and he didn’t do it two winters ago when Alex Gordon was a free agent.
But whether intended this way or not, the party and love from the organization and fans is the strongest possible statement about what those players mean to the Royals and Kansas City.
Each man is different — Moustakas is the most emotional, Hosmer the most stable; Cain wants love and comfort and Escobar wants the same plus opportunity — but those feelings are real.
The reality, however, is that those memories will exist no matter what. None of them would be the first to leave a place they loved and had success for another place that offered more money.
The Royals know they cannot offer the biggest contract to Hosmer, so they will likely follow the same plan that eventually landed Gordon two years ago: stay in touch, be patient, trust that they’ll have a chance after other offers come in, and then get as close as possible.
Hosmer signing with the Royals would require a series of breaks their way. Many around the game believe Hosmer could get $150 million or more. They would need to be wrong. Many around the game believe Hosmer wants to play in a bigger market. They would need to be wrong about that, too.
The market would have to shake in a way that Hosmer would not be offered what many believe, and his mind would likely have to get to a place where he was willing to take less. Not $50 million less. Nobody does that. But even a relatively small percentage of the total value could be in the seven figures.
Do you know anyone who’s turned down a million dollars?
Two years ago, most around baseball believed Gordon could get around $100 million. That never happened. A list of breaks went the Royals’ way, most notably Jason Heyward signing with the Cubs, which took the richest potential suitor for Gordon off the market. Gordon signed with the Royals for $72 million.
We don’t need a full sentence to acknowledge the Royals would hope Hosmer’s deal turns out better than Gordon’s has, but they would likely also need to give him some assurance that they were building a winner around him.
That could mean moving players like Ian Kennedy, Joakim Soria, Jason Hammel and Brandon Moss. All of those contracts are backloaded, so the Royals would need to eat some money. They haven’t done much of that in the past, but would have to see the opportunity to keep homegrown stars long-term as reason to break protocol.
But, again. All of this depends on Hosmer seeing a softer market than most expect, and reacting with a decision most don’t expect.
Even internally, club officials acknowledge this is unlikely.
So they’re coming up with a contingency plan to play next season without Hosmer, Moustakas, and Cain for the first time since 2010.
The contingency plan is, basically, to make the best of a bad situation by combining low-risk moves with hope.
Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain each figure to be among the top 10 free agents on the market this winter, but if the Royals can’t sign any of them, they are highly unlikely to pursue others.
That means filling holes with smaller contracts (Mark Reynolds replaces Hosmer at first?) or internally (Cheslor Cuthbert replaces Moose at third). At that point, the Royals would effectively be admitting a rebuild.
The position players and pitching staff would each figure to be in the bottom third, and their team defense would be further diminished. Moore would never commit to a virtual tank like some other clubs, such as the Astros, have done (successfully). But he could still find models to copy.
The Twins, for instance, had no intention of making this year’s postseason. They traded their closer at the deadline, and internally were ceding the wild card. But they kept winning, caught a few breaks, and took advantage of everyone else fading in the wild-card race.
This year it was the Twins, next year it could be the Royals.
The White Sox, to use another example, have shown how quickly you can go from all-in to full rebuild. They were among the heaviest suitors of Gordon two years ago, trying to push forward in the division while Chris Sale and others were still in arbitration. It never took, and Sale, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana and others were dealt for prospects.
So the Royals could, at least in theory, hope to be next year’s Twins, and if that doesn’t work out, try to be next year’s White Sox.
Danny Duffy, Sal Perez, Whit Merrifield and others could be a workable nucleus for a playoff run with the right luck. But if they get to June and July without a realistic chance, they could always flip some proven big-leaguers for help in the future.
If this sounds wishy-washy, like an organization that doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be, it’s actually similar in philosophy to how they made the parade.
When he came to Kansas City, Moore didn’t intend to build a team without home-run power — first thing he wanted to do as GM was move the fences in.
He didn’t intend to build the best bullpen in modern baseball history — strongest belief he had when he arrived was the importance of starting pitching.
But the Royals’ best teams hit very few home runs, and had a line of shutdown relievers, because the front office identified cost-effective workarounds to the traditional ways of winning.
They’ll have to continue to think on their feet, but for now, they wait. Everything depends on Hosmer.