The warning signs are right there for Eric Hosmer in the Royals’ clubhouse, living, breathing proof of how the game tortures even the most talented.
Alex Gordon, the second overall pick of the 2005 draft, was labeled the next George Brett, selected ahead of Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki, among others.
Jeff Francouer, the Sports Illustrated cover boy of Aug. 29, 2005, was hailed with the inscription: “The Natural. Atlanta Rookie Jeff Francoeur Is Off To An Impossibly Hot Start. Can Anyone Be This Good?”
Hosmer is the flavor of the moment, the game’s Next Big Thing. As such, all the proper disclaimers apply. But, my goodness, it sure does not look like he will struggle like Gordon and Francouer, both of whom are just now regaining their footing in the majors.
My goodness, did you see what Hosmer did at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night?
Fifth major league game. First time batting third. Second at-bat, first career homer, pulled into the second deck in right field off a 93 mph fastball by Yankees right-hander A.J. Burnett.
Now, fast forward to the 11th inning. Bases loaded, one out, an 0-2 count against right-hander Luis Ayala. Hosmer reaches for a pitch down and away, out of the strike zone. Sacrifice fly to center. Go-ahead run. Royals win, 4-3.
On Thursday he went 3-for-5 with two RBI and a home run.
Good thing Hosmer, 21, has Francoeur, 27, advising him at every turn. Want to know what Frenchy told Hosmer, a left-handed hitter, before the series began?
You’re so good at hitting the ball the other way. Don’t be seduced by the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium. Don’t get pull-happy.
Uh, fine advice, Frenchy, considering where Hosmer deposited his first homer. But in fairness, Francouer also says this:
“At 21 years old, I wish I knew half the stuff he does about hitting. His approach and maturity is off the charts.”
Virtually everyone with the Royals sees Hosmer the same way. He is the first in a wave of ballyhooed Kansas City prospects, and quite possibly the best.
Designated hitter Billy Butler, the team’s most accomplished hitter, says Hosmer is “way ahead of his time.”
Hitting coach Kevin Seitzer says — not once, but twice — he doesn’t want to make predictions or raise expectations for his new prodigy.
Then Seitzer, unable to help himself, bursts with praise, recalling a specific sequence from Tuesday night’s game.
Hosmer struck out on a Freddy Garcia split in the dirt, then “spit” on several similar pitches in his next at-bat, drawing a walk to represent the potential tying run and driving Garcia from the game in the seventh inning.
“He’s extremely advanced, very talented,” Seitzer says.
Which is as it should be, considering the Royals made Hosmer the third overall pick in the 2008 draft. In the past 34 years, only three other high school corner infielders merited a top-three selection.
Hosmer’s future Royals teammate, Triple-A third baseman Mike Moustakas, was No. 2 overall in 2007, and Cubs Double-A third baseman Josh Vitters went one pick later. The other member of the group: None other than Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who was taken No. 1 by the Marlins in 2000.
Why is it so rare for a high-school corner infielder to be chosen so highly? Because a team that gambles on such a pick essentially banks on only two of a player’s five possible tools: His ability to hit for average and hit for power. Most corner infielders aren’t great defenders, fast runners or powerful throwers.
Well, Hosmer had the two hitting tools, and he actually is a fine defender at first with a strong arm. Still, his path to the majors was not exactly smooth.
Hosmer was a major disappointment in his first pro season. But, after undergoing LASIK surgery, he enjoyed a major breakthrough in his second.
It was a lesson learned. While the scrutiny in the minors obviously is not the same as it is in the majors, scouts and reporters dissect high draft picks. Hosmer didn’t fail as visibly as Gordon and Francoeur, but he still failed.
Yet, when you ask Hosmer about that first year, he doesn’t mention the astigmatism that affected his vision, or the broken knuckle he suffered on his right hand. He just says he had to bear down.
“It motivated me that offseason to work that much harder, know how to prepare my body for the season,” says Hosmer, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds.
“Anytime you experience failure in this game, it’s tough. Going through high school, I had never really experienced it. To experience that first year in the minor leagues, it probably did me good. It helped me a lot.”
This is still only Hosmer’s third pro season. The Royals simply could not keep him in the minors any longer.
Hosmer hit .439 in 98 at-bats at Triple-A, prompting Francouer to gush, “I don’t know if there are a lot of big leaguers who could do that.”
Gordon, too, likes what he sees.
“We called him up for a reason,” Gordon says. “We think he can help the team right now. We know he will.”
Hosmer, in an unusual feat, drew walks in his first two major league appearances against the Athletics. Gordon says he actually noticed the Oakland pitchers nibbling when Hosmer was at the plate. How often does that happen in the opening series of a player’s career?
Hosmer is so young, he acknowledges asking older teammates “non-stop” questions — What bus do I take? When should I come to the field? Francoeur gave Hosmer a suit to wear on his first road trip. Hosmer beams as he tells the story, saying Francoeur is even letting him keep the clothes.
No doubt Hosmer will struggle. They all struggle. As Seitzer notes, Hosmer will face a torrent of cutters, sliders and sinkers, thrown harder and commanded better than in the minors. But the kid, Seitzer says, is well-equipped to adjust.
Gordon says he hasn’t spoken to Hosmer about how cruel the game can be; at this point, why go there? Besides, as Gordon notes, each player is different. What happened to Gordon and Francoeur will not necessarily happen to Hosmer.
Oh, the warning signs are there, all right. But five games into Eric Hosmer’s career, they’re awfully hard to see.