Eric Hosmer: Ready For the Next Step

Through Tuesday’s games, first baseman Eric Hosmer had a slash line of .387/.464/.570 at High-A Wilmington. He’s been ridiculously productive and has bounced back far greater than Royals fans and the organization could have hoped after a disappointing 2009. In his first full year of professional baseball, the former third overall pick produced a meager .241/.334/.361 line, battling a hand injury and eye problems along the way.

Clearly, he’s rebounding in a big way which presents the question – is he ready for Double A? Moreover, even if he is ready, should he be promoted?

Year Age Tm Lev PA AB H HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2008 18 Idaho Falls Rk 15 11 4 0 2 3 2 .364 .533 .545 1.079
2009 19 2 Teams A-A+ 434 377 91 6 59 53 90 .241 .334 .361 .695
2009 19 Burlington A 327 280 71 5 49 44 68 .254 .352 .382 .734
2009 19 Wilmington A+ 107 97 20 1 10 9 22 .206 .280 .299 .579
2010 20 Wilmington A+ 166 142 55 2 29 21 12 .387 .464 .570 1.034
3 Seasons 615 530 150 8 90 77 104 .283 .374 .421 .795
A+ (2 seasons) 273 239 75 3 39 30 34 .314 .392 .460 .852
A (1 season) 327 280 71 5 49 44 68 .254 .352 .382 .734
Rk (1 season) 15 11 4 0 2 3 2 .364 .533 .545 1.079
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/19/2010.

My simple answer to both questions is yes. In 2009, Hosmer opened the year in Burlington, producing at an average rate – not awful for a 19 year old kid. Curiously, the Royals promoted him to Wilmington for the last quarter of the season and the health and sight problems combined with a higher level of competition to limit him to a very poor statline.

Wilmington’s Frawley Stadium is renowned for being a pitcher’s park, so Hosmer’s High-A numbers can be partly attributed to that issue (though only partly). When compared to his performance in the same league so far this season, his problems last year and success this year have to take into account both a now-recovered hand injury and Lasik surgery. For what it’s worth, Hosmer’s home production stands at a mere mortal .328/.451/.500.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Hosmer has benefitted from a high BABIP (.408), but he’s also making more contact this year than ever, striking out only 12 times in 166 plate appearances. When you make contact 93% of the time, like Hosmer is doing thus far, a lot of those balls will find a hole and go for a hit. Oddly, his LD% isn’t as high as you’d expect with such an elevated BABIP – minorleaguesplits.com shows a LD% of 13.2% so far along with a 52.7 GB% and 34.1 FB%. It seems like those kinds of trends will correct his BABIP and lower his overall numbers but there’s no denying that he’s seeing the ball better and making more (likely better) contact as a result.

Additionally, Hosmer has hit left-handed pitching better than right-handed to this point (.438 vs. 352). That’s a good sign, since he only hit .171 in 2009 against lefties. I have to attribute that to improved vision and pitch recognition.

I say he’s ready for the next level of competition. Mike Moustakas‘s numbers looked modest in his full season at Wilmington in 2009 but he did enough to earn a promotion to Double A Northwest Arkansas to start 2010. I expect that was the intention all along, and would expect that was the approach the Royals wanted to take with Hosmer before the start of the year.

In fact, some of his power numbers may improve outside of the Carolina League. In 2008 in Burlington, Mike Moustakas hit 25 doubles and 22 homers. In 2010 so far, Moustakas has 10 doubles and 8 homeruns. His one year in the Carolina League, however, only (only!) produced a 32 double season and 16 homers. It seems that more of those doubles could have been homers in a different environment. Hosmer in 2010 has 14 doubles and 2 homeruns. His power is still developing, but in a neutral park, some of those doubles would surely clear the fence.

The Royals have shown a willingness to promote in mid-season when it’s become clear a prospect has dominated their current level of competition. Look at Mike Aviles in 2008, who forced their hand and went from Omaha to Kansas City’s Player of the Year. Or Kila Ka’aihue, whose destruction of Double A pitching earned him a move up to Omaha. Want more examples? Mike Montgomery and John Lamb were too much for their initial 2010 competition and have taken a step up already in 2010. Last year, Louis Coleman held Low-A batters to a .091 batting average and earned a move up to High-A where the success continued. His 2010 numbers (1.82 ERA, .155 BA against) make him a candidate for another midseason promotion. Blake Wood‘s 2.16 ERA in Omaha through the first six weeks of the season have placed him a Joakim Soria injury away from closing for Kansas City.

Hosmer’s deserved promotion wouldn’t displace any major prospects in Northwest Arkansas. Clint Robinson and Ernesto Mejia currently man first base for the Naturals and have been adequate, but neither are as important to the organization’s long-term plans as Hosmer. Surely, Hosmer could at least equal, if not surpass, Robinson’s .252/.362/.403 line and Mejia’s .244/.305/.445.

Let’s say Hosmer does get promoted within the next few days and merely produces at his early 2009 levels. His .734 OPS before his Wilmington promotion is just slightly below both Robinson and Mejia to this point, but the improved vision would give him upside to surpass their numbers. His floor would still be reasonable, while he gained experience at the same time. If we crudely project 400 at bats at his 2009 Burlington levels, Hosmer’s full 2010 pro line would come out to .289/.370/.431. That’s not too bad for a 20 year old kid and he’d get a chance to start 2011 in Double-A building off of that experience and success.

The upside to promoting a player when their production warrants it allows them to advance faster and impact the major league club much sooner than a typical year by year approach. The downside is that if the prospect struggles or outright fails at their new level, they may lose confidence or make adjustments for short-term success that may become bad habits that hinder their long-term viability.

Still, the idea of “they came up too soon” is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe Alex Gordon came up too soon, going from Double A to the majors. But what about Ryan Braun? He made the same jump and nobody would say he came up too soon. If the prospect fails, they’re a flash in the pan; if they thrive, they’re a phenom.

In Hosmer’s case, his struggles in Wilmington last year aren’t affecting him in 2010. The pros to moving him up mean he’s closer to the majors, he’ll be closer to making his debut at a similar time as Mike Moustakas (and probably Mike Montgomery), and he can get out of the Carolina League and likely see a power spike.

The cons are that if he fails, he could fizzle out, or it could be shown that he isn’t as good as everyone thought. I’d say that’s only a remote possibility (and maybe that’s my optimism at play). Maybe the low homerun numbers mean he’s more John Olerud than Justin Morneau. But here’s the thing – if Hosmer isn’t the superstar first baseman of the future that we think he is, three more months in Wilmington isn’t going to change that.

I say he’s ready. Let’s see what he can do.

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Tags: AL Central Alex Gordon Baseball Blake Wood Burlington Bees Clint Robinson Eric Hosmer Ernesto Mejia John Lamb Kansas City Royals KC Kila Kaaihue Louis Coleman Michael Montgomery Mike Aviles Mike Montgomery Mike Moustakas MLB Northwest Arkansas Naturals Omaha Royals Royals Wilmington Blue Rocks

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