In a perfect world, Eric Hosmer would have become a modern baseball rarity, someone who started and finished his career with the same franchise and stands taller for all the growing pains and exhilarating achievements in between.
Hosmer’s game and leadership and fan appeal made him an ideal fusion in what the Royals needed to thrive and — at least seemingly — in what they need now to reboot.
His place in the Royals’ ascension from the ashes to World Series champion is commemorated in general manager Dayton Moore’s home, where a framed and dirt-splotched No. 35 jersey from Hosmer’s 2011 major-league debut marks the pivot between gearing for the future and engaging it that the Royals called “Operation Flip The Switch.”
Now it’s tempting to view Hosmer’s departure for San Diego as something like “Operation Dim The Lights.”
But failing to secure the one player among the core four of free agents who the Royals most coveted as a stabilizing link to their future was a blessing in disguise.
With the operation primarily committed to what Moore calls “becoming financially more responsible, which will give us more flexibility into the future,” winning a bidding war with San Diego (which signed Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million deal) would have been more harmful than helpful going forward.
Not to be as blunt as manager Ned Yost was after the Royals saw Hosmer in a Padres uniform for the first time during Cactus League play: “Move on, man. It’s done. It’s done. I mean, it’s gone. It’s over. He’s with that team. We’ve got our team. And we go on.”
Yost actually meant that in terms of working past the sentimentality of a painful loss — one also to be felt from the departure of Lorenzo Cain for $80 million over five years in Milwaukee.
From a purely pragmatic standpoint, though, the Royals can move on more smoothly without Hosmer.
Signing Hosmer would have continued to muddle a financial situation that had gotten out of whack — a club-record $154 million last year for an 80-win team three years after a $96 million payroll produced a World Series appearance.
It would have mortgaged the future instead of investing in it and decelerated the ability to reset. Instead, the Royals secured the 33rd pick in the 2018 draft in compensation and have four of the top 40 selections this year to help restock a depleted minor-league system.
And it would have compromised the ability to spend selectively along the way — including with three key acquisitions in a 10-day period that could make this year’s team better than it would have been with Hosmer.
Now, signing Hosmer may or may not have pre-empted any of the one-year contracts on Mike Moustakas ($6.5 million), Jon Jay ($3 million) and Lucas Duda ($3.5 million), who if Hosmer had stayed could have been a designated hitter consideration.
But there’s no doubt that the Royals would have had a harder time justifying those expenses if they’d shelled out $20 million-plus for Hosmer.
And there’s little doubt that having that contingent on board makes for a more secure bridge ahead in several ways.
For one thing, those acquisitions and the economical one-year re-signing of Alcides Escobar ($2.5 million) shut down any inclination to force-feed the likes of Bubba Starling, Hunter Dozier, Aldaberto Mondesi and Cheslor Cuthbert (though Cuthbert has some seasoning at third base and is expected to get plenty of at-bats as a DH).
Those signings mean development can remain a matter of urgency instead of an emergency.
They also represent something important by way of example to the up-and-comers and message to fans.
While questions abound about the makeup of the bullpen and the ability of several veteran starting pitchers to rebound, the Royals have demonstrated they aren’t willing to return to the dark ages and force you to tolerate ineptitude as they retool.
Of the eight players projected to start in the field as of mid-March, four (Escobar, Moustakas, Alex Gordon and Sal Perez) have been All-Stars and six (that group along with Jay and Duda) have played in at least one World Series.
They include a World Series Most Valuable Player and one of the best at his position in the game (Perez), an American League Championship Series MVP (Escobar), the team single-season home-run record-holder (Moustakas), a guy who hits about 30 home runs every year (Duda), one of the best outfielders you’ll ever see (Gordon) and another (Jay) who once went 245 games without an error and is a .288 hitter in eight big-league seasons.
Lots of role models can come from this group in a clubhouse that needs multiple positive influences.
The other two who figure to start the season are the energizing, productive and versatile Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler, who at 26 is thought to have big potential despite a rough 2017 that began with an oblique injury.
All of which makes for a far more intriguing lineup than most seem to assume in the Royals.
Beyond Soler, of course, there are many questions to be asked about this group — some of whose best days likely are behind them.
Might Gordon somehow find himself after two dreadful seasons at the plate ended with a hopeful September?
Can Moustakas be ready early after not signing until early March?
Will Escobar, an iron man with a Gold Glove but an oft-leaden bat, be able to contribute anything substantial at the plate?
Only the season ahead can answer all of this, but this much you know now:
Sad as it is to lose Hosmer, the Royals assembled a better immediate product with money they saved by not overextending on him even as they gained traction in the rebuild with the addition of another meaningful draft slot.
Even if they could be years from contending again, they’ve assembled a credible lineup that buys time for development … and makes hope reasonable right now.
Anyone would rather have Hosmer than not, and at the right price it would have been great to see him here for keeps.
But, yes, “it’s gone, it’s over,” and it turns out the Royals are better-served in both the short and long hauls.