The Kansas City Royals Blunder by Calling Up Eric Hosmer

Eric Hosmer is getting his shot in the majors. But at what cost to the Royals? (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Apparently Dayton Moore has decided that the time is now for the Royals historically good crop of prospects.  Well, at least it is for one of them.  On Thursday, the Royals announced that they are promoting Baseball America #8 prospect Eric Hosmer to the big leagues.  To make room for him on the 25-man roster, they are demoting sabermetric semi-darling Kila Ka`aihue to AAA Omaha.


Many Royals fans and prospect followers love the move but some think it is a very problematic promotion.  As I see it, breaking down this decision requires answering two questions:

  1. Is Eric Hosmer Major League ready?
  2. Is this a good time for the Royals to call him up?

Is Eric Hosmer Major League ready?


At first glance, Hosmer looks like the model of an up-and-coming star who is ready to tackle the majors.  After being drafted third overall in the 2008 draft, Baseball America ranked him as baseball’s #24 overall prospect in 2009.  He struggled that season, but it was discovered that he was having vision problems and LASIK surgery gave rise to a breakout 2010 campaign which led to his #8 rank in BA’s most recent top 100 prospect list.  It almost goes without saying that the scouts love him.  From BA’s 2011 Prospect Handbook:

Hosmer’s approach is very advanced for his age, and one scout likened it to Joey Votto’s.  he already likes to use the opposite field and has the strength to drive the ball out of the park while going the other way.  Pitchers who nibble on the outside corner to stay away from his power are doing just what he prefers. . . He projects as well-above-average as a hitter and power hitter, with a swing that has drawn comparisons to Will Clark’s with the same kind of high finish.


Hosmer dominated both the High-A Carolina League last year (.354/.429/.545) and the AA Texas League (.313/.365/.615).  This season he has also hit well in the AAA Pacific Coast League (.439/.525/.582).  If you look only this deep, it appears that Hosmer is outclassing minor league pitching and is ready for the majors.  But there are some red flags.  The first is the surprising lack of power.  His ISO is only .143, which is particularly surprising given the PCL’s penchant for inflating power stats.  So he’s been mostly a singles hitter (3 HR, 5 Doubles, 35 singles).  And it appears that he’s been pretty lucky.  He’s had a .506 BABIP with only a 19% line drive rate.  Also troubling is his 50% groundball rate, which of course is consistent with his relatively small number of extra base hits.


So is he ready for the majors?  I don’t know.  It kind of depends on how much of a hurry a team is to add his potential impact bat to their major league squad.  If you’ve got a hole at first base and you need a player like him to help you get to the playoffs, then maybe he’s close enough.  But if you’re not likely to be in contention, it seems like he has enough question marks that it would make sense to leave him in the minors for a while to see how he performs over a larger sample of data (so far just 118 PA in AAA).  What happens when his luck evens out?  Can he make adjustments to AAA pitching and show more power?  Without answers to those questions, I don’t think we can really say he’s Major League ready.


Is this a good time to call him up?

If he’s ready for the majors, or at least close to ready, the Royals had four choices for the timing of Hosmer’s promotion: 

Promotion time Arbitration Implications Years of team control
Before June 2011 Super Two, four years of arbitration 2011-2017
After June 1, 2011 Not super two, three years of arbitration 2011-2017
After mid-April, 2012 Super Two, four years of arbitration 2012-2018
After June 1, 2012 Not super two, three years of arbitration 2012-2018

For better or worse, the Royals have chosen the first option.  Hosmer will have two league minimum season, then go to arbitration for four years.  And the counting stats that first basemen put up tend to lead to particularly large arbitration awards.  This makes him considerably more expensive than he’d be if the Royals had waited until June 1 (using a rough date here; could be more like June 5).  And for a small market, low revenue team like the Royals, additional costs can be very problematic.


But I think the much bigger problem is the team control years.  In essence, by calling Hosmer up now, they are trading the 2018 season for the 2011 season.  Now, if the Royals were likely to be in contention this year, that might make sense.  But I don’t think that is realistic.  While the Royals are currently 17-14, their actual performance has been worse.  A recent Beyond the Boxscore article showed that the Royals record using Base Runs was 11.4-16.6.  The most recent PECOTA projected standings for the AL Central had the Royals at 70 wins and a 1.1% chance of winning the division.  I think the projections, even with updates to take into account performance so far this season, show that the Royals are still likely to finish last in the AL Central.  So if the Royals aren’t likely to contend, why trade 2018 for 2011?  The 2018 season is an unknown, but that is better than a very likely lost season. 


And then there’s the issue of Hosmer’s age.  Recently when looking at the issue of what would be the optimal time to call up Bryce Harper to the majors, a Tom Tango study found that to maximize pre-free agency performance, a player should be in the majors from age 23 to 29.  Eric Hosmer turned 21 last October, so it appears the Royals will have him for ages 21 to 27.


One last consideration is that Hosmer’s promotion comes at the expense of Kila Ka’aihue.  Ka’aihue has been horrendous this season, hitting .195/.295/.317.  Over his 326 PA Major League career, he hasn’t been much better, hitting .216/.309/.375.  I don’t know if Kila will ever succeed in the majors.  There’s a real chance that he’s a AAAA player who doesn’t have the bat speed to hit I the majors.  But it’s still early.  A measly 326 PA’s shouldn’t seal any player’s fate.  Again, if the Royals were likely to stay in contention this season, then I could understand having him on a short leash, but such is not the case.  This is the kind of season where the Royals can and should give a player like Ka’aihue an extended look to determine once and for all if he has any value.  Instead, they have likely given up on him and his potential.


Conclusion

Eric Hosmer probably isn’t far from being Major League ready, but I don’t think he’s there yet.  In the very least, significant questions remain about how good of a AAA hitter he really is.  While it might make sense for a contender to promote him and roll the dice, the 2011 Kansas City Royals are not in that situation.  By calling him up now, the Royals are going to be paying him more, losing his 2018 season and not getting his best years.  As a Royals fan, I’d love to think that this is the right time to call up a top prospect.  But as an analyst, I have to say that this is a bad call.  It appears that Dayton Moore has either succumbed to the impatience of his owner, the fanbase or himself, or he’s misread how good his team is, or maybe all of the above.  Given his track record, I shouldn't be surprised.

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