The Royals have put faith in young players like Hunter Dozier, whose development will largely decide how quickly the club can climb back to the right side of .500. The Royals need to start to see their faith rewarded sooner rather than later.
The lumps endured during a 104-loss season fade away much easier when soothed by tangible progress and improvement from young prospects like Dozier, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound corner infielder once ranked among the organization’s best prospects by Baseball America.
General manager Dayton Moore and his staff made decisions on potential offseason acquisitions or standing pat based in large part on what they thought they had in house, and the strides they hoped to see this coming season.
“So you have different opinions from your scouts, your analytical team, the major-league coaching staff, everyone’s different opinion,” Moore said on Friday at Royals FanFest at Bartle Hall.
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“We just felt that we needed to continue to commit to Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn and give Brian Goodwin a chance and (Jorge) Bonifacio and (Jorge) Soler and guys like that.”
Now, it’s up to a guy like Dozier to take the steps necessary to prove he’s been worth the time and effort already invested. After all, third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert is no longer on the 40-man roster — the Royals designated him for assignment earlier this month. So Dozier goes into spring training with the opportunity to firmly plant his flag as the everyday third baseman.
Dozier also goes in with a measure of comfort and confidence he didn’t have last season.
“It didn’t start off too well, but how I finished I was really happy,” Dozier said. “I kind of felt like I just found myself again. I missed all of 2017, and I always told myself that wasn’t going to affect me, but I think it did. I think I just needed time to kind of almost — like I said — find myself and kind of get into the groove. I didn’t realize missing basically a whole year of baseball how it would affect me.”
Fits and starts marked Dozier’s 2017 season, ultimately a lost year. He tore an oblique muscle on the last day of spring training and missed two months. While on a rehab assignment at Class AAA Omaha, he found out he needed wrist surgery.
After having surgery and missing two more months, he went on another rehab assignment only to take a ball off the nose and suffer a fracture that also required surgery.
When Dozier got called up in 2018, Mike Moustakas, a fan favorite and one of the heroes of the Royals’ World Series teams, was still the club’s third baseman. Playing a position (first base) that didn’t come as naturally to him, likely contributed to some of Dozier’s early hitting woes — he batted .209 with a .269 OBP and a .331 slugging percentage in 51 games before the All-Star break.
Of course, it wasn’t necessarily easy either to step into the role of replacing Moustakas at third base mid-season, when the team traded Moustakas to Milwaukee.
“You struggle with it every day, trying not to put that pressure on yourself,” Dozier said. “I think once you start having some confidence, starting having a little success at the big-league level, things start to slow down and things start to kind of feel like it’s just a game again. I think that was big for me.
“Last year, I went through the beginning part where things were going fast, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. I was questioning could I play up here. Once things started clicking, I got my confidence back and then it became a lot of fun again.”
Dozier batted .280 in the month of August, and in 51 games after the All-Star break he posted a slash line of .247/.287/.453. Seven of his 11 home runs and 22 of 34 RBIs also came after the break.
Meanwhile, third base started to feel like home again defensively.
“I’ve played with Dozier and been in the offseason with Dozier for years, and I feel like he really turned a corner defensively,” first baseman Ryan O’Hearn said. “He was making plays over there that — for me — I was like ‘Wow. I’ve never seen him do that before.’”
Royals manager Ned Yost, who wasn’t sure where Dozier would fit defensively upon Dozier’s arrival, now points to Dozier’s defense at third base as one of the most encouraging signs he saw from Dozier, now 27, in Dozier’s first extended stint in the majors.
“You’ve got to give (bench coach) Dale Sveum, (third base coach) Mike Jirschele credit, and Hunter,” Yost said. “Every single day, they were out on that field early taking ground balls. They were working on footwork, they were working on range. They were working on soft hands. They were working on his throwing. Every single day.
“At the end of the year, he made dramatic strides defensively at third base for me — I mean dramatic. I was really, really impressed to the point where I’m like this kid can play a solid major-league third base.”