It isn’t merely that the Royals believe first baseman Eric Hosmer is ready for prime time. (Although they do; emphatically so.) The decision to summon Hosmer, their top prospect, stems from a growing belief that 2011 can be more than a transition year.
“That’s the general consensus, yeah,” manager Ned Yost agreed. “I don’t want to say we’re playing better than we anticipated because we came into this thing anticipating playing pretty well.
“We’ve played very good baseball from day one in spring training. We’ve gotten to that point (where expectations are rising). The kid is producing down there. He’s in a league of his own. It’s a need here – production at first base. The time is right.”
Hosmer, 21, should be the starting first baseman Friday when the Royals, 17-14, open a three-game weekend series against Oakland at Kauffman Stadium. He arrives after an eye-popping start at Class AAA Omaha that included a .439 average in 26 games.
“We’ve had pretty much all of our scouts in Omaha or seeing them on the road in pretty much every game they’ve played this year,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “And to a man, everybody pretty much comes back and says ‘This guy’s ready, and we need him on our major-league team to help us continue to win.’”
The move also reflects the organization’s unwillingness to wait longer for first baseman Kila Ka'aihue to emerge from an extended slump. Ka'aihue was optioned to Omaha after batting .195 with two homers and six RBIs in 23 games.
The Royals also shifted injured catcher Jason Kendall from the 15-day to the 60-day disabled list to clear space on their 40-man roster for Hosmer. Players on the 60-day list do not count against the 40-player limit.
“We need to get Kila going,” Yost said. “He’d been fighting it up here. This gives him a chance to regroup down there and get his swing back in line. We’re going to need him somewhere over the course of this year to come up and help us make a big push.”
Even so, Yost left no doubt that Hosmer, who bats and throws left-handed, is coming up to be the starting first baseman now and, if all goes as anticipated, for the long-term future.
“The kid can hit,” Yost said. “The kid is going to be a superb player in the American League. He’s going to hold his own. I’m not worried about thatHe’s a different animal.
“He’s going to be a pretty darn good player. So we want to get him up here, throw him in the mix and let’s go.”
Hosmer, who was issued No. 35, spent much of the spring in big-league camp and batted .450 with a .950 slugging percentage in 13 Cactus League games.
“We got to see what kind of a kid he is in spring training,” left fielder Alex Gordon said, “so we're not worried about him coming up here too fast. We feel like he's going to fit in right away with his abilities.”
Hosmer’s arrival, because of his defensive skills, effectively turns Billy Butler into a full-time designated hitter, a role Butler resisted in the past.
“My role is my role,” he said. “I will help the team any way I can, so I’m going to go up there and do whatever I can with the bat.”
The general view within the clubhouse is Hosmer’s arrival confirms the organization’s belief that this year’s club can be a postseason contender. The Royals trail first-place Cleveland by 4½ games in the American League Central Division.
“This is a message from the front office,” pitcher Bruce Chen said, “that says, `You know what guys? We believe in you and are going to do everything we can to keep up your momentum.’”
The Royals selected Hosmer with the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, and his $6 million signing bonus remains a franchise record. Questions surfaced when he struggled through much of 2009 because of a hand injury and vision problems.
Lasik surgery corrected the vision problems, and Hosmer responded last season by batting .338 with 20 homers and 86 RBIs while splitting 138 games at Class A Wilmington and Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
Hosmer entered this season regarded as the top prospect in what is generally viewed as the game’s top farm system. His arrival in the big leagues, potentially, signals a seminal step in the club’s rebuilding process.
The timing is such that Hosmer, 6 feet 4 and 229 pounds, will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2017 season. But he is likely, under the current labor guidelines, to gain eligibility for arbitration after the 2013 season under the super-2 provision.
That additional year of arbitration eligibility could, if Hosmer plays to expectations, amount to several million dollars (perhaps tens of millions) before his eligibility for free agency.
The Royals could likely have delayed his arbitration eligibility for another year by keeping him in the minors until June. Club officials acknowledge the move, even when viewed strictly from a development perspective, comes earlier than anticipated.
“Scripting this thing out,” Moore said, “we were looking maybe 200 to 250 plate appearances. He’s had about 120 plate appearances, but he does so much defensively as well, and that’s an important part of the equation.
“Again, just listening to our scouts and our development people, to a man, everybody felt we had to move and get him going.”