There’s a lesson to learn from Eric Hosmer’s return to Kansas City to face the Royals

·6 min read

Eric Hosmer’s arrival to the majors came in May 2011, one of the most anticipated Royals debuts of the previous decade — so anticipated, in fact, that the team’s front office had coined a term for it.

Operation Flip the Switch.

Sure, an organization then with eight straight losing seasons would not have used the phrase if a handful of other prospects had not accompanied Hosmer’s debut. But it was his call-up that, well, flipped the switch on the term’s public introduction.

In a call Thursday, Dayton Moore, the Royals’ president of baseball operations, shared that story, same as he’s done in the past. The purpose? Hosmer made his long-awaited return to Kauffman Stadium later that evening, five years after he bolted for more cash, and Moore wanted to articulate just how significant of a role Hosmer played in the organization’s 2014-15 trips to the World Series.

It’s an anecdote about the past.

But with some relevance toward the future.

Hosmer’s return served as a reminder of how long ago those playoff runs were — do you realize Salvador Perez is the only current member of the Royals who actually played even one game with Hosmer here? But just the same, it was also a reminder that simply because a rebuild is too slow in pace does not necessarily mean it will fail.

And before we continue, let me be clear that this rebuild has required more time than it should have — that criticism has already been pointed out in this space.

For today, let’s focus on what it means for the future.

That’s where Hosmer comes into play.

The bigger picture will tell you that the switch did eventually flip with Hosmer and the prospects that joined him. The Royals have banners flying above their left-field Hall of Fame structure to prove it.

But it was not immediate. It was slow enough, actually, to doubt its conclusion. Hosmer came up with the Royals playing better than .500 baseball, but they would still lose 91 games in 2011 then 90 more in 2012 — even as the club’s marketing team embarrassingly dubbed the latter “Our Time.”

Wasn’t the case. And you couldn’t help but wonder how they would ever put it all together.

Little did we realize then, it was closer than understood. The Royals finally finished above .500 in 2013, before ending a three-decade playoff drought a year later. I don’t need to inform you of the rest.

“Ultimately, you get to the big leagues (and) you realize this is the hardest stop of them all,” Hosmer said. “Stuff doesn’t change in a year.

“You’re going to fight through some stuff. You’ve got to make some adjustments. You gotta learn as a team and individually.”

Before Hosmer spoke inside Kauffman Stadium’s media room Thursday, the very setting in which the Royals introduced him as an 18-year-old draft pick, I reminded Perez of the zig-zagged journey over those four-plus seasons long ago and asked, Does this in any way remind you of ...

“Where we are right now?” he interrupted. “Yes, I see the similarities.”

This isn’t even an argument that it will all work out now. It’s an argument that it could, heavy emphasis on could, and the Royals’ own history is just one example.

But, to be honest, I do think this core group of hitters is good enough to carry a team into the postseason — Bobby Witt Jr. looks a future multi-time All-Star, more talented than any from the preceding group, and MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, Vinnie Pasquantino, Michael Massey and Nate Eaton all provide degrees of optimism.

The 2022 season has been pretty terrible, all the more more frustrating when you consider the Royals publicly targeted this year as the one to turn the corner on a rebuild.

But five of those aforementioned rookies were in the lineup Thursday against Boston (which acquired Hosmer earlier in the week, ironically setting up his Red Sox debut in Kansas City). This is the group that will determine the success of the future, and although there isn’t much to like about the present record, there is something to like about its future potential.

“You look around, and this is what we’ve got,” infielder Nicky Lopez said. “This is our team. Which is a beautiful thing. I think it’s really cool that we’re going to start building that culture.”

Don’t take this is a like-for-like comparison between the two groups, though there doesn’t need to be a like-for-like comparison. There are plenty of ways to get there. In fact, the Royals’ avenue seven years ago leans closer to unique than it does trend.

But there are some similarities between the two — like the young hitters, the question marks on pitching development, the potential for quality defense and activity on the basepaths.

All with one key difference.

This group remains an if. Baseball can go in a million different directions. Some prospects pan out. Some don’t. This one has potential, particularly in the lineup. But we know the finish line of the previous group. There’s no guarantee this group will reach the finish line.

If there’s something else we learned from the stretch that commenced a decade earlier, it’s that a lot has to go right. A lot has to fall in place at just the right time. That’s not only true of the Royals’ championship team but most all others.

Their top prospects (and those they acquired) eventually did develop, all contributors in their own way — Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, not to mention the bullpen arms. A couple of trades proved pivotal, too.

That team had chemistry, leadership and some fiery on-field personalities who made it clear they didn’t exactly enjoy losing — with Hosmer and Moustakas chief among them.

“We came up together. It was a big group that felt extremely extremely comfortable bouncing ideas off of each other,” Hosmer reminisced. “Ultimately, we just figure it out as a group, and I think that’s what made it most special.”

We’re not there yet, but I don’t think you have to squint hard to see the group that could comprise the encore. It’s fun to imagine.

Right now, with the Royals sitting 23 games under .500 as I type this, that’s all we can do — imagine it. They have replicated the preceding group’s early struggles. Not yet what followed.

Can’t help but wonder, though ...

“Hosmer, he obviously went through it,” Lopez said. “I would think — not trying to put words in his mouth — that if he looked into our locker room, or if he saw the way we were flying around (with) all these young guys, I’d assume he’d look back and say, ‘Wow, this is kind of what I experienced here, too.’”

OK, let’s ask him.

“It was buzzing when we were here,” Hosmer said. “It was a lot of fun. I know they got some guys in that clubhouse that they can start to build around and bring that buzz back around here.”