Picture Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium. Then envision third base. Wait for your mind's eye to reveal to whom new manager Matt Quatraro gives the hot corner start when the KC Royals host Minnesota March 30.
Could it be Hunter Dozier?
The same Hunter Dozier who can boast only one good major league season since debuting in 2016?
In an ideal world, it shouldn't be. But because Kansas City's offseason deals haven't netted a high-caliber third baseman to solve its conspicuous third base problems, Dozier opening at third, the position he's played more than any other, is certainly possible.
How so? Consider the factors that might lead Dozier back to third base.
Bobby Witt Jr. is firmly entrenched at shortstop for the KC Royals
Whether Kansas City fans like it or not, and despite the fact his glove was better at third than at shortstop last season (-2 OAA at short, -9 at third, and .976 fielding percentage at third, .959 at shor), the Royals seem irrevocably committed to Bobby Witt Jr. as their shortstop. It's his so-called "natural" position, a spot he apparently prefers to any other, and he possesses the tools required to eventually excel there. Unless all other options fail, and although he'd make a fine third baseman, this team just isn't going to move Witt to third.
The KC Royals' third base alternatives don't have Hunter Dozier's power
The hot corner is traditionally a power position. But other than Dozier, Kansas City's best current third base options with big league experience are Nicky Lopez, Nate Eaton, newcomer Matt Duffy, and Ryan Goins, a former Royal who just signed a minor league deal. None are likely to get the full-time job.
Only in 2021, when he became the first Royal shortstop to bat .300, has Lopez hit well enough to play every day, and he has only five homers to his name. Unless he wakes up his bat and suddenly finds some power, he won't be the regular third baseman. Instead, and because he's so good and versatile defensively, he'll be the club's primary utility infielder.
Eaton's minor league .923 fielding percentage at third, the position he played more than any other, suggests he's not prepared to play there regularly. He fared decently at the plate during his big league debut season last year (.264 with a .331 OBP in 44 games) but, like Lopez, lacks power: he hit one homer for KC and reached double-digits only once in four minor league campaigns.
Goins' 22 homers in eight major league seasons, and Duffy's 29 in seven, demonstrate their power isn't what big league teams look for in everyday corner infielders.
Home runs count for something when it comes to third basemen; Dozier can, at least for now, deliver more than Quatraro's present alternatives. He clubbed 26 homers in 2019, 16 two seasons ago, and 12 last year, and is capable of more.
The KC Royals probably believe they have to play Hunter Dozier somewhere
Ultimately, Dozier is a problem for Kansas City. That 26-homer 2019 campaign, which also featured 84 RBIs and a promising .279/.348/.522 line and 124 OPS+, remains the best he's had and may ever have.
And after three straight unproductive seasons, little suggests Dozier will recapture the magic of 2019, which puts the Royals in a bit of a jam: to say he's underperforming a four-year, $25 million contract that requires them to pay him $7.25 million this year and $9 million next, understates the problem.
Dozier's current deal, while not overwhelming, hangs heavier around Kansas City's neck than it would around many other clubs'. But because his past three years' performance renders a trade quite improbable, the Royals don't like to eat bad contracts unless and until they have to, and they infamously tend to stick with too many underperforming, overvalued players, Dozier probably isn't going anywhere soon.
That means the Royals will probably feel compelled to work him regularly. The outfield corners, however, don't seem to suit him particularly well and first base, where he also sees frequent action, is spoken for by Vinnie Pasquantino as long as the club doesn't take a risk and start Nick Pratto there to open the season, in which case Pasquantino will DH.
That leaves third base if Dozier is to play every day. It's far from an ideal situation, and the experiment may not (and probably won't) last long, but don't be shocked if the Royals try him back at third to begin the new season.
Will Hunter Dozier be at first base Opening Day? We shall see.