Roster moves the KC Royals made this week improved the club, but increased the pressure on Hunter Dozier.
After a week filled with roster moves, the heat is on the KC Royals, one not felt since 2017 when expectations were high they’d recover from the 2016 hangover that followed two straight trips to the World Series and make one last run with their championship core.
It’s the heat to win, something Kansas City hasn’t done since capturing the Series in 2015. But this week’s transactions turned up the temperature—the Royals got the veteran pitcher they needed and possibly a full-time centerfielder, but cut loose the third baseman who did everything they asked of him in 2020.
The pressure is on.
It’s on Mike Minor, the former Royal southpaw whose signing to at least a two-year reunion was reported Sunday. His acquisition completes the club’s starting rotation and fills a hole the Royals tried, but failed, to plug in 2020.
It’s on second baseman Nicky Lopez. His defense is near-perfect, but next season may be the last one he’ll have to prove he can hit; compounding the heat is Bobby Witt Jr.’s presence in the Royal wings, where he awaits an infield position that will soon be his. Witt is a natural shortstop; Adalberto Mondesi has played second and could move there if Lopez fails to hit.
It’s on Mondesi. Unlike Lopez, and despite the miserable slump that all but ruined his 2020 season before he caught fire in September, the Royals know Mondesi can hit. KC needs him to put together a season full of excellent work at the plate.
But the pressure on Hunter Dozier, who patiently responds to every new position the Royals assign him to, is different, one beyond his control or of his making. This week’s roster moves solved only part of KC’s lineup puzzle; now, the club will rely on Dozier, perhaps more than anyone else, to help make all the pieces fit.
That’s because non-tendering third baseman Maikel Franco, the club’s riskiest move of the week, couldn’t have been made without reliance on Dozier. It was Dozier, remember, who established himself in 2019 as Kansas City’s third baseman with a .279/.348/.522 slash that complemented 29 doubles, 10 triples, 26 home runs and 84 RBIs, then found himself displaced when the Royals signed Franco in the offseason.
Dozier moved competently and without complaint to right field before the disappointments that were the Ryans O’Hearn and McBroom caused manager Mike Matheny to try him at first. The move turned out well—Dozier played 28 errorless games there and, in a personally disappointing year with the bat, still hit better as a first baseman than as an outfielder.
It was clearly Dozier’s versatility that enabled the KC Royals to take the financially-motivated risk to non-tender Franco; although they could bring him back, Franco will likely catch on with another club more willing to pay what he certainly would have won in arbitration. Dozier can play third adequately if the Royals don’t land someone better suited for the hot corner (assuming they’re looking); although his defense is occasionally shaky, it’s sufficient until someone better comes along, which could well be Witt. (Kelvin Gutierrez is probably better in a utility role).
And if Kansas City is hunting for and finds a new third baseman, Dozier is the best fit at first without going outside the organization. Matheny’s hypothesis that Dozier might work well at first is proven: Matheny liked him there and sees Gold Glove potential in Dozier.
It’s also conceivable Dozier made acquiring Taylor more comfortable for the Royals. The club has been fine with Whit Merrifield in center but seems to prefer him in right—knowing Dozier can play well at first and third (and in left if need be) makes it easier to shift Merrifield to right, where Dozier has spent almost all of his outfield time.
Kansas City now has plenty of outfielders, so Dozier will end up at first or third. The Royals need to stabilize those positions, but fixing both through trades or free agency is unlikely; Dozier gives the team the option to focus its search on one position.
So it is that Dozier, heretofore at ease wherever Kansas City put him, now has the added pressure of playing in one spot to accommodate other critical needs. It’s the pressure of knowing it’s his ability that helps drive the decision to acquire another player or two and that he’s expected to perform accordingly.
And that’s consistent with the message mlb.com’s KC beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan hears the Royals have conveyed to Dozier:
The club knows what Dozier can do. They’re relying on him.
After this week’s moves, the pressure is on the KC Royals and Hunter Dozier. How they handle it will be interesting.