Here at Royals camp, it is easy to overlook first baseman Ryan O’Hearn. He is 23 years old. He is neither part of the club’s returning core nor a prospect on the cusp of the big leagues. He is not camp darling Peter O’Brien, who spent the opening weeks mesmerizing his new teammates with his ridiculous raw power.
For close to a month, O’Hearn has faded into the background, spending his camp in relative anonymity, quietly studying the movements of Eric Hosmer, the man who currently resides at first base.
“It’s the ‘School of Hoz’ over there,” O’Hearn said.
O’Hearn, a former eighth-round pick, is not the Royals’ top prospect. In the offseason, Baseball America ranked him eighth in the publication’s annual ranking of the top 10 players in each minor-league system. Yet he could be among the most important.
It is far too premature to say that O’Hearn is the Royals’ first baseman of the future. Hosmer is entering his final season before free agency, but club officials are hopeful they will be able to retain as many homegrown stars as possible. But if Hosmer is playing somewhere else in 2018, O’Hearn could project as a possible next man up — at least someday.
Club officials believe O’Hearn’s bat will play at the major-league level. In four minor-league seasons, he has burnished his credentials with consistent production and performance.
“The kid’s got a really good swing,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “He can really hit.”
The minor-league numbers support the scouting report. In four professional seasons, O’Hearn has batted .288 with a .366 on-base percentage and slugged .501. In the last two seasons, he clubbed 49 homers in 261 games, spending last year at Class A Wilmington and Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
A left-handed hitter with power and plate discipline, O’Hearn began to use all fields in 2016, hitting nine homers to the opposite field. In ranking the Royals’ top prospects, Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper rated O’Hearn’s bat speed as “average” — a concern, of course — yet he also wrote that his raw power could give him “a chance to hit 25 home runs in an everyday big-league role.”
For O’Hearn, the offensive side of the game has always come easier. A former standout at Sam Houston State, O’Hearn was drafted in the eighth round in 2014. The next day, the Royals took his college teammate, second baseman Corey Toups, in the 15th round.
“We’d been roommates all throughout college,” O’Hearn said. “It’s been a fun ride with him. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Toups, who also finished last year at Class AA Northwest Arkansas, was here in big-league camp before being reassigned to minor-league camp last week. O’Hearn will get a longer look as Hosmer spends time playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
Before Hosmer left, O’Hearn tried to glean as much as possible, especially on defense. Club officials say O’Hearn’s defense is improving, but it’s still a work in progress. So O’Hearn spent mornings studying Hosmer’s footwork at first base and his technique for scooping balls in the dirt.
“You can always improve,” O’Hearn said. “I just don’t want to get complacent with my mentality on defense. I want to be an asset at first base. Obviously, the Royals put a high value on defense, so it’s just something that I’m definitely focused on.”
For now, O’Hearn is ticketed for another season in the upper levels of the minor leagues. His path to the big leagues remains blocked by the presence of Hosmer in Kansas City. But as the Royals’ franchise first baseman moves toward free agency for the first time, O’Hearn is a prospect worth tracking.
“I’m just trying to gain some confidence in knowing I can compete up here,” O’Hearn said. “Just get comfortable. Hopefully I can carry it into a good 2017 season.”