Prospect Three-Day Weekend: Eric Hosmer edition

In the biggest surprise of the prospect-watching season, the Kansas City Royals have called up top prospect Eric Hosmer to Kansas City, demoting struggling Kila Ka’aihue to Triple-A.

It’s not surprising in that Hosmer isn’t ready for the majors. The slugging first baseman has little left to prove anywhere in the minors, and has destroyed Triple-A pitching this season to the tune of .439/.525/.582. Hosmer will instantly be the best hitter on what has been an over-achieving Royals team, and will replace one of the team’s least productive hitters in the lineup. The surprising part is the timing.

The reaction to the Hosmer promotion has been remarkably positive, given that it will likely cost the Royals 10-15 million down the road. By promoting Hosmer now, the Royals can virtually ensure that the best player in what is a historically strong crop of prospects will reach “Super Two” status and thus be eligible for arbitration four times instead of three. Unless the Royals know something no one else does about the upcoming collective bargaining agreement, this seems like a foolish waste of their limited resources.

Everything said by the Royals front office over the past year has signaled a change in philosophy. The team, realizing that it is lucky to have a fan base so excited about a crop of extremely talented prospects that it’s willing to accept yet another “rebuilding” project, has made an effort to separate itself from its formerly stingy reputation. The Royals have said all the right things, and by promoting Hosmer now, they’ve taken the first step into turning words into actions. But what fans, and perhaps even the front office, are forgetting (or maybe ignoring) is that the only thing that may be worse than not spending money is spending it foolishly. Teams have won despite being cheap. Very few win by being reckless.

Sam Mellinger, who does a great job covering the Royals for the Kansas City Star, celebrates the move, saying “This move probably will cost the Royals money, one more crack in the outdated view that David Glass still runs the franchise like a Wal-Mart store. Assuming the Royals keep (Hosmer) until his free-agency after the 2017 season, this could cost them an extra $10 million-$15 million if the sport’s salary arbitration rules stay the same in the next collective-bargaining agreement. But that’s all minutiae at the moment, because the baseball world is getting acquainted with a far different type of Royals franchise than the one Jay Leno used to reference in his monologues.”

I understand the excitement. I really do. But $10-15 million is hardly minutiae. In fact, it is the opposite of minutiae.

When the Braves laughed in the face of the service clock last year with Jason Heyward, it was because the stakes were different. Heyward is perhaps one of the few prospects in recent years that was even more highly regarded than Hosmer is right now, but the Braves were a team expected to contend, which they did, and Heyward played a significant role. In fact, between the start of the season and the end of May (roughly a safe date to avoid Super Two status), Heyward contributed 3.455 wins to the Braves total (according to FanGraphs WPA statistic). The Braves won the wild card by one game.

The Royals, despite their current above-.500 record and weak division, are not in this position. Regardless of how well they are playing now, the Royals are not going to compete this year with Bruce Chen and Kyle Davies on the mound every fifth day. And even if they were, it’s not their offense that’s the problem. They are second in the American League in on-base percentage and third in slugging. There’s even an ironic headline in Mellinger’s article pointing out that the Royals lead the AL in extra-base hits. If the Royals were going to start the service clock of one of their talented prospects, a more productive option would have been to select a pitcher.

Which they may do.

The one caveat defending this move is if it turns out to be the first of many—which it likely will. Replacing a few of their scrap-heap collection of starters with Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery, both of whom are doing impressive things in Triple-A, would certainly make the Royals more talented than the Indians team they are currently chasing. Also just a phone call away are Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain, both perfect fits for when the inevitable Wilson Betemit and Melky Cabrera slumps hit in mid-summer.

But could a team with that many rookies (don’t forget, they already have four in their bullpen) really make a playoff run?

History would tell us no.

In order for Hosmer and any other current prospects to make enough of a difference in Kansas City to allow the Royals to make a run at the AL Central, they would have to be in the majors soon enough to log at least 100 games. If Hosmer and Moustakas both played 100 games in the majors this season, the Royals would become just the 36th team since 1961 to have at least two rookies log that much playing time. Of those 35 other teams, just two have won their division—the 1989 Cubs (featuring Dwight Smith and Jerome Walton) and the 1969 Miracle New York Mets (featuring Wayne Garrett and Rod Gaspar).

The Royals would also need to promote some of their pitching talent in the minors, and in order to make a difference, would probably need to get about 120 innings out of their rookie pitchers. During the same time period, 21 teams have had two or more rookie pitchers log over 120 innings in the same season, and just two won their divisions. The 1984 Royals saw the debuts of Mark Gubicza and Bret Saberhagen and the 1976 Reds featured Santo Alcala and Pat Zachary. Something tells me the 2011 Royals won’t hit like the Big Red Machine.

Since no team since 1961 even made both lists, let alone won their division, and no team has ever featured four rookie relievers to throw over 40 innings apiece in the same season (as Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, Jeremy Jeffress and Nathan Adcock are all on pace to do), it would seem the Royals would have to do something historic to win the AL Central, no matter how weak it may appear.

Which is why there’s no reason to call Hosmer, or any of the rest of the Royals’ first wave of prospects, up to the majors now when they could save millions by waiting a few more weeks. The Royals are undoubtedly looking toward next year, and rightly so, and with that in mind, want to get their prospects’ feet wet in the majors this year. But is three weeks of extra major league at-bats in a season where you have little chance of competing really worth $10 million?

Don’t let anyone fool you.

References & Resources
http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110505&content_id=18691128&vkey=news_kc&c_id=kc&partnerId=rss_kc
http://www.kansascity.com/2011/05/05/2853095/here-comes-hosmer.html#ixzz1LZlQ7KeR
http://www.fangraphs.com/statsd.aspx?playerid=4940&position=OF&season=2010

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Comments

  1. Brad Johnson said...

    “The slugging first baseman has little left to prove anywhere in the minors, and has destroyed Triple-A pitching this season to the tune of .439/.525/.582.”

    What do we make of him doing that in the PCL with a .544 BABIP. A high BABIP is a sign that a prospect needs to be promoted, but obviously it could also be mostly luck too.

  2. Brad Johnson said...

    If we make it a .344 BABIP he hits roughly .346 which is good but not exceptional in PCL.

  3. Donald Trump said...

    mlbtraderumors just had a piece on the timing, and the conclusion is that it is not a slam dunk that this costs the royals a year of arb.  it will be very close.

  4. Scott said...

    How about wait untill we see what the kid does. If he plays as advertised this will mean even more revenue than just fans in the seats bring. The media doesnt have anyone to drool over this season either. He could be it and bring some needed attention to MLB this season. You dont have to hit .390 in the PCL to exceed in the big leagues either. Of the 2 pitchers they have yet to bring up, 1 will do well, the other will be better than what they have. The Royals have a shot at contending in the Central and if nothing else they should be making eneough money over the next couple years to pay some of these guys. Whats the other scenario? Follow the Pirates blue print? Its not like they or any other team would be able to keep all this talent anyway. It just doesn’t happen no matter what a team does.

  5. randy said...

    At what point later in the season could they have promoted Hosmer and not got the clock started?

  6. Brad Johnson said...

    Typically around June 10 generally is the absolutely safe date. Late May you run a risk.

    There’s at least some chance that arbitration rules change slightly in the next CBA and I’m sure the Royals have accounted for that in their decision too.

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