Here we are, the last week of August and the Kansas City Royals are currently sitting atop the American League Central, leading the Detroit Tigers by 2.5 games. Even a month ago it seemed unlikely the Royals would be in this position, with Detroit looking up at them. Things seemed even worse at the time, as the team’s starting first baseman, Eric Hosmer, was dealing with a right hand fracture and would be missing 4-6 weeks. But instead of Kansas City struggling in his absence, the team has flourished. Billy Butler took over first base and not only got hot with the bat, but he has also played very solid defense. The Royals went out and picked up Josh Willingham from Minnesota and his bat has been a major plus in the middle of Kansas City’s order. With all of this said, word got out this week that Hosmer was healing and should be able to go on a rehab assignment as early as next week. That brings up the question that most of us have been wondering; what will the Royals do with the lineup when Hosmer returns?
The first option is that Hosmer returns to first base and Butler slides back to DH. Obviously you would have to get Willingham some at bats as well, but if Butler is still hitting at his current level it will be harder to take him out of the lineup. Either way, Hosmer is the better defensive player(despite the fact that defensive metrics aren’t always fond of him) and this does hold some weight when it comes to a team contending for a playoff spot. Some will point out that Hosmer was also starting to compile some hits before his injury, as he had strung together a 16 game hitting streak before it being snapped on July 23. So the argument is there for things to just return to normal on his return.
The second option is where the trio of Hosmer, Butler, and Willingham float between the two spots, with more at bats going to the players with the hotter bats. In this scenario, the hot hand gets the playing time. I don’t have a major issue with this idea, although manager Ned Yost isn’t always the best at lineup configuration and optimizing it to the Royals greatest advantage. This would also ease Hosmer back into playing time without putting any added stress on his hand. If his hand feels sore after playing a few games in a row? Sit him for a game or two and let Butler play first. I don’t have a major issue with this idea, and it is possible we see something in this vein happen when Hosmer makes his return.
The third option is probably the least likely to happen, but probably the one I favor the most; when Hosmer makes his return to the team, sit him on the bench and continue with Butler playing first and Willingham the primary DH. I’m not saying don’t give Hos any playing time; I think that is just not realistic and probably hurts the team to a degree. But here is the simple truth: this Royals team got hot after Hosmer’s injury. The old saying “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” would apply here and it has been working with the current arrangement. I know some people would scoff at this and say I am crazy, but it’s not like Hosmer has torn the cover off the ball this year. Billy Butler is obviously more comfortable hitting when he is playing in the field and Josh Willingham has added some much needed offense to the middle of the order for Kansas City. Yes, the Royals defense would be even better with Hosmer at first base but the argument can also be made that it’s not like Butler has embarassed himself at the position. Butler has probably looked the most impressive he ever has in the field and it seems a shame to take that away for a guy who for the third straight year has shown major issues at the plate.
That is the other thing with this scenario: team chemistry. Sure, I tout numbers as much as anyone else, mainly because numbers don’t lie. But…there is something to be said for team chemistry and upsetting a rhythm. The Royals have been in a groove since Hosmer went down and I would be leery to turn around and change all of that. It might be superstitious and it might be fool-hardy, but I’m not 100% for sure this team is better with Eric Hosmer in the lineup. He has never seemed to really get into a groove this year offensively, this after last year’s first half where he looked like a singles hitter and his awful 2012. I have discussed Hosmer’s struggles more than once and I am even of the belief the team should look into trading him in the offseason. To just insert him back into the lineup, seems like a bit of a mistake and is a reward I’m not so sure he has earned.
That is the other issue and one that has floated around Royals twitter for much of this year: Hosmer seems coddled. I have no clue where the blame should lie on this, but it has seemed more and more apparent that the Kansas City organization has allowed some of their younger stars a feeling of entitlement, even though they haven’t proved themselves in the majors. This was never more apparent than earlier this summer when Billy Butler was punished for his slump while Hosmer was still allowed to hover around the top of the order despite his lack of production. The belief at the time was the organization had more faith in Hosmer coming around than Butler, but even that thinking seemed a bit flawed. Either or, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Hosmer was forced to the bench. In fact, for an organization that loves “character” this seems like a good way to build some up in him. Maybe Hosmer earning his spot back is the better way to go in this scenario.
Within the next few weeks, the Royals are going to have some hard decisions to make. I firmly believe there is no “perfect” answer to this dilemma, but I also think it is a good problem to have. When was the last time Kansas City was in a position where they had this much talent fighting over just a few spots? For all we know Eric Hosmer could elevate this Royals ballclub even higher than they currently reside. But there is just as much a chance his return can slow down the train. I don’t envy Ned Yost and the decision he is going to have to make and how he will divy up playing time. The best thing he can do is what he feels is best for this team’s chances of playing October baseball. To play Eric Hosmer or not, that is the question. The answer is a muddled mess that might cause deflated ego’s and hurt feelings.