NEW YORK -- Eric Hosmer grew up in Florida but he was a Yankees fan thanks to his grandparents who live up the Hudson River in Cold Spring, N.Y. So when a cheer arose from the Yankee Stadium crowd as his home-run trot approached second base last Wednesday night, it was unexpected, though not unwelcome, for the rookie Royals first baseman.
The 21-year-old soon realized that, despite his childhood allegiances and dreams, the roar was not in appreciation of his first career homer, a fourth-inning solo shot off New York's A.J. Burnett, but for the fan's rejection of the souvenir and subsequent return of the baseball to the field of play.
But it was nevertheless another fortuitous moment in the charmed first week of big league life for Hosmer because after the ball was retrieved in rightfield, it found its way to the Royals' dugout. Once the league's authenticator is done marking it, that ball will be added to Hosmer's burgeoning memorabilia collection that already includes the baseballs from his first hit, first double and three or four assorted ones from his first game, not to mention the first lineup card on which his name appeared and the batting gloves he wore for his first hit.
"I'm almost done getting the first everything out of the way," said Hosmer, debuted on May 6 and went 7-for-21 with two doubles, two homers, five walks and a stolen base in his first six games. "It's been a dream come true these past couple of days."
And not just his dream but those of Royals fans looking for a return to glory. They've already become one of baseball's most buzz-worthy teams, thanks to their abundance of young talent. Notice of Hosmer's debut led to the sale of nearly 10,000 day-of-game tickets last Friday at Kauffman Stadium. In that one, Hosmer walked twice, struck out twice and even stole a base. (He opted not to rip second base out of the ground, as Rickey Henderson did upon breaking the career steals record in 1991, to add it to his stash of artifacts and later joked, "Who would have thought the first stolen base would have come before my first hit for a big, slow first baseman?")
Hosmer represents hope. In some ways his debut is a bigger deal for Royals fans than pitcher Stephen Strasburg's debut last June was for Nationals fans. One, as a position player, Hosmer can be enjoyed every day rather than just once every five (even before Strasburg's Tommy John surgery). Two, Hosmer isn't an isolated blue-chip prospect. He is merely the first and possibly the centerpiece of a historically great farm system.
The Royals, who took two of three games from the Yankees last week in the Bronx, are 20-19 and 5 games behind the upstart Indians in the AL Central thanks to resurgent seasons from their outfielders, including K.C.'s former top prospect Alex Gordon and free agents Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera. And Kansas City may be just getting started.
Drafted third overall out of American Heritage High near his home in the Miami suburb of Cooper City, Fla., Hosmer was rated the No. 8 prospect in the game by
Hosmer started the season in the minors hitting like that ranking was an insult. Upon his call-up from Omaha, Hosmer was leading all levels of the minors with a .439 average and .525 on-base percentage, to go along with three home runs in 98 at bats and 26 games. By not waiting a few weeks until June before promoting him, the Royals have risked making him arbitration-eligible a year sooner than he would be otherwise, which could cost the team several million dollars down the road. But incumbent first baseman Kila Ka'aihue was hitting below .200, creating an opportunity for Hosmer.
"In the end it got to be a very simple decision," assistant general manager Dean Taylor said. "There are a lot of surprises in the division this year, and how it's shaping up here early, we see some light at the end of the tunnel. We thought it was a good time to make a move and inject him into the lineup, to see what he can do. We're confident he's going to be a very productive player very quickly."
Hosmer's immediate production has been especially important for Royals fans who have grown tired of waiting for "The Process" -- GM Dayton Moore's ubiquitous term for the club's rebuilding plans -- to come to fruition. After all, if not for a stray 83-win season in 2003, the Royals would pretty much be the American League version of the Pirates. Kansas City has had a sub-.500 record in 15 of its last 16 seasons and has been waiting even longer than Pittsburgh for a playoff berth. The Royals have not played postseason baseball since winning their only World Series title in 1985, which represented the seventh time in the previous 10 years that they had reached the playoffs.
While the rebuilding effort has been a laborious process, it may prove worth the wait because the roster is being built by executives with championship pedigrees, albeit from other franchises. Moore, a former assistant GM with the Braves, was with Atlanta for most of its run of 14 straight division titles and brought with him a number of his lieutenants.
Taylor was also a former assistant GM in Atlanta, but he also was GM of the Brewers during the time they drafted Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and J.J. Hardy, among others. Taylor said that at last count 16 members of Kansas City's baseball operations department have World Series rings, with "at least half" of them fellow former disciples of Braves architect John Schuerholz.
"There is a process, and it never happens overnight," Taylor said. "We're fortunate now that, after five years, the process is starting to show results. The scouts and player development people deserve a lot of credit because they're the ones who've done all the work in terms of signing and developing these players."
The Royals' goal is to produce two or three quality major leaguers from its farm system each year and to have at least half of the players on the 40-man roster be homegrown. There are actually 42 players on the roster because two are on the 60-day disabled list and exempt from the cap; with Hosmer's call-up, Taylor noted that 19 of the 42 are products of their development program. Of course, three of the four players who aren't homegrown -- shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain and reliever Jeremy Jeffress -- were all acquired from the Brewers during the offseason in exchange for homegrown ace Zack Greinke.
Moustakas, a third baseman and No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft, was the player many expected to get the first crack at the big leagues ahead of Hosmer, but his time will come soon, though probably not until at least June as the Royals likely can't afford two budding stars who would qualify for Super 2 status in arbitration. And though the team could play meaningful second-half games, it's not yet a championship contender. There's no point in rushing everyone up when the franchise is more realistically eyeing the 2013 World Series. It's as if the Royals have announced their candidacy for a distant presidential election and now need to pace themselves on the campaign trail.
The depth of prospects is staggering. In fact, the
"I like rookies," K.C. manager Ned Yost said. "Rookies aren't a problem to me. They don't bother me when they're talented rookies you can look at and say, 'Hey, they're going to develop into a championship nucleus group.' They've got to start somewhere."
Yost previously managed the Brewers just as Taylor's draft picks were reaching the majors and sees the Royals' system as stocked more completely.
"It is real exciting," Yost said. "We did have a real nice group of young, power-hitting position players there [in Milwaukee], but we didn't really have much pitching. In this scenario we've got everything."
Within a year or two, most of those prospects will be in the major leagues. For now the Royals have Hosmer, about whom Gordon used the word "great" four times in two sentences to describe him as a great kid, a great player, a great guy in the clubhouse and in the avant garde adverbial form: "He handles himself great."
While it has certainly has been a great debut, true on-field greatness -- not only for Hosmer but also for the Royals -- may only be a couple years away.