KC Royals: Hunter Dozier is now under the microscope

(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

KC Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier will be closely scrutinized this season.

The KC Royals are a frugal club historically loathe to spend big bucks on individual players. Most notably, they traded young stars Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon when both were on the verge of free agency, signaling reluctance to pay the money required to keep them and similarly-skilled players.

Occasionally, though, the Royals cast the vault doors wide open, but with poor or mixed results. They signed reliever Mark Davis for $10 million right after he led the National League with 44 saves and won its Cy Young Award in 1989, only to discover that season was the best he’d ever have. He went 9-13 with a 5.31 ERA and only seven saves for KC in three seasons, and his greatest contribution to the club then was opening the door for Jeff Montgomery to become its closer.

They brought Gil Meche aboard in 2006 for $55 million. Pitching for bad teams, he won 23 games and lost 24 the first two years with the club. Unfortunately, injuries struck him in 2009 and ’10, he pitched far less than he had and lost effectiveness; facing surgery that could wipe out the last season of his deal, and much to his credit, he retired, voluntarily surrendering the $12 million left on his contract because he didn’t want to be paid for what he couldn’t earn.

Then came the cases of Alex Gordon and Danny Duffy. Gordon inked a four-year, $72 million contract after the 2015 World Series and, although he didn’t lose a step defensively, never again hit as well as he had before signing the deal. Just a year after they gave Gordon his mega-deal, the Royals signed Duffy to an even bigger five-year, $72 million contract to which he’s never quite measured up.

The four-year, $16.25 million pact Whit Merrifield signed and expires after next season (unless a one-year option is exercised) is an entirely different story—no one is complaining about his performance under the deal.

Now, it’s Hunter Dozier’s turn in the barrel. After contract extension speculation swirled around Brad Keller, Salvador Perez and Adalberto Mondesi this offseason, but rarely touched on Dozier, the Royals recently wrapped him up in a four-year deal reportedly worth at least $25 million.

Whether Dozier is, and will be, worth it is the question, especially considering Perez is in the last year of his contract, Keller and Mondesi are keys to the team’s future, and none of their contracts have been extended. (Good cases can be made for and against the latter two receiving immediate extensions, but the clock is ticking on Perez, who the club can’t afford to lose).

So it is that Dozier will spend this season, and maybe more, under the microscope. He’ll be closely watched, his every move analyzed to determine whether the Royals jumped the gun and spent their money unwisely and in the wrong place. Such is the nature of the situation.

Dozier is talented, a versatile player who’s proven he can play third and first bases, and right field, adequately, and can hit for the kind of power those positions traditionally require. He hit 26 home runs with 84 RBIs and a .279/.348/.522 line in 2019, his first full major league season after collecting 11 homers and batting .229 in 102 games the year before. The start of his 2020 season delayed by a positive COVID-19 test, Dozier missed the first 15 days of the campaign and finished with six homers and a .228 average in 44 games.

How will he perform this season, subject as he’ll be to so many watchful eyes and increased pressure?

Baseball Reference and FanGraphs projections for Dozier’s KC Royals season

Baseball Reference and FanGraphs project Dozier hitting his share of home runs, but neither foresee his line approaching his 2019 best.

Baseball Reference predicts he’ll have 19 homers, 58 RBIs and a .249/.326/.444 line; FanGraphs (Depth Charts version) projects more homers (22), more RBIs (74), and a .243/.323/.434 slash.

How will Dozier actually perform for the KC Royals in the 2021 campaign?

A secure financial future, the motivation of contract expectations, and a return to third base, where he’s clearly comfortable, may propel Dozier to an excellent season. Assuming he’s healthy all year, 25 home runs are certainly reachable, as are 85 RBIs considering the better offense his new and incumbent teammates should muster. A .260 average is reasonable to expect, and, dependent upon where manager Mike Matheny slots Dozier in the lineup, could climb higher.

If, on the other hand, Dozier succumbs to the added pressure and scrutiny occasioned by his new contract, he might struggle. Expect Matheny and the KC Royals to manage the internal pressures.

Ultimately, though, Dozier’s deal isn’t of the same magnitude as Davis’ (relative to 1989 economics, of course), Meche’s, Gordon’s, or Duffy’s. It’s more on the line of Merrifield’s, reasonable compensation for what Dozier will hopefully deliver. He’s struggling in spring training (1-for-15 in seven games through Sunday), but look for a good year from Dozier.

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Hunter Dozier is in brand new territory. Expect him to live up to the KC Royals’ expectations this season.