Ned Yost on putting Hunter Dozier at first base early in spring training
At the front of the clubhouse here, a row of locker stalls that once belonged to stars has been re-assigned to younger players. This is where Eric Hosmer made his home each spring, not far from the lockers of Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain, just around the corner from the front doorway.
On Wednesday morning, as Royals pitchers and catchers prepared for their first day of spring camp, catcher Salvador Perez stood in a corner of the clubhouse and gazed over at the empty wall.
“I knew these guys when I was 16 years old, 17 years old,” he said. “It’s different.”
The reality could not be ignored as the Royals organization gathered here for the start of another spring. The clubhouse turnover is evident. Young faces dot the room. Yet players and coaches are not quite ready to turn the page.
Hosmer is not here, of course, a glaring absence after a decade-long marriage that produced a World Series championship and a baseball renaissance in Kansas City. But among club officials and old teammates, there remains hope that he will be.
“Of course, I want him back,” Royals manager Ned Yost said, addressing reporters for the first time on Wednesday. “That goes without saying. But there’s certain aspects of this game that I can’t control.”
Hosmer is still at home, still a free agent after a long and slow winter. The Royals are still in pursuit, still engaged in conversations with his representatives as spring camps begin in Arizona and Florida.
The only other public suitor remains the San Diego Padres, who reportedly resumed discussions in the last week. The process has now dragged past the offseason and into a new year. The Padres front office is said to have “fallen in love” with Hosmer, according to a report this week from the San Diego Union-Tribune. The Royals’ own adoration for Hosmer is well documented.
But for now, the club is also making contingency plans. Yost said Wednesday that Hunter Dozier, a third baseman and former first-round pick, will open camp working primarily at first base. Other options include third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert, second baseman Whit Merrifield and prospects Ryan O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel. The latter two players are here as non-roster invitees and not members of the 40-man roster. That the list of options includes two other potential starters in Cuthbert and Merrifield underscores the lack of depth at the position.
The Royals are set to open camp with just one first baseman on their 40-man roster. His name is Samir Duenez, a 21-year-old who spent last season at Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
The setup could create opportunity for Dozier, 26, who has spent most of the last two seasons blocked at the major-league level and battling injuries at Class AAA Omaha. In 2016, he batted .296 with 23 homers while splitting time at Omaha and Northwest Arkansas, earning a September callup. Last year, his season was derailed by an oblique strain in late March and he appeared in just 33 games. On Wednesday, he appeared ready for any possibility.
“I’m more comfortable at third right now, just because I’m played it more than another other position,” Dozier said. “But like I said, I’m working hard at first and outfield, and I’m starting to feel really well at those positions.”
In a minor-league career that has spanned five seasons, Dozier has started just 11 games at first base. He played shortstop as a college standout at Stephen F. Austin in Texas. He spent most of his professional career at third base before the presence of Moustakas and Cuthbert spurred an experiment in the outfield.
Yet when full-squad workouts open here on Monday, he will likely spend most of his days toting a first baseman’s mitt around the complex.
“He’ll work primarily at first base early for sure,” Yost said. “He adjusted to the outfield really, really quickly, because he is athletic, and he can adapt. He looked fine playing first base some last spring, too. He’ll be OK.”
At 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds, Dozier has the frame and body type to offer a solid target at first base. Yost has likened him to Corey Hart, a power hitter whom he managed with the Milwaukee Brewers. Hart, a solid offensive performer, began his career as a third baseman before transitioning to the outfield and playing one season at first base. Dozier offers similar flexibility, though the Royals will experiment with alignments this spring.
Cuthbert, who is expected to replace Moustakas at third base, has also offered glimpses of defensive promise — or at least respectability — at first base. O’Hearn and Schwindel have produced a varying levels in the minor leagues.
O’Hearn, 24, has batted .278 with an .844 OPS in four seasons since being drafted in the eighth round out of Sam Houston State. Schwindel, 25, an 18th-round pick out of St. John’s in 2013, had a breakout season in 2017, batting .321 with an .868 OPS and 17 homers in 99 games at Omaha.
The uncertainty at first base would vanish if the Royals re-sign Hosmer. That much is obvious. As Yost sat in his office on Wednesday morning, he scoffed as a reporter noted this.
“My God,” Yost said. “How freaking obvious is that freaking statement.”
For now, though, Hosmer is not here. And that means a competition at first base. And for the first time, Dozier could have an opportunity to win a spot on the opening day roster.
“It’s the first day of spring training,” Yost said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I wouldn’t say it’s anybody’s job to lose. What I would say is he’s going to get an opportunity to compete for it today.”