- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Heading into Thursday's games, plenty of players with 100 at-bats this season had yet to hit a home run, but the names read like a who’s who of powerless singles hitters, from Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus to San Francisco Giants infielder Marco Scutaro and Miami Marlins contact guys Placido Polanco and Juan Pierre. Sitting there on the cusp of 100 at-bats at 97 was Kansas City Royals disappointment Eric Hosmer, a player manning a power position at first base but providing virtually no power.
Hosmer mercifully hit a Freddy Garcia pitch the opposite way over the left-center-field fence in Baltimore on Thursday night, driving in two runs and exiting the class of the homerless Ben Revere types of the world. However, it hardly means this is the start of something big. In fact, many fantasy owners have already moved on. I admit I’ve thought about it, too, and I’ve been a big supporter. Nobody sets a drop-dead date for when they give up on players, though. There’s still little evidence that Hosmer’s 2011 season, when he hit .293 with 19 home runs in 128 games, is what we should expect in 2013, although I hold out hope. Last year was a major step back for Hosmer, as he hit .232 with 14 home runs.
[+] EnlargeEric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
Eric Hosmer's owners would like more homers, but he is bringing other things to the table.
What caught my eye about Thursday’s Royals box score was how manager Ned Yost made major changes to his lineup. I don’t think that’s why Hosmer finally went deep, being moved into the No. 5 spot hitting behind designated hitter Billy Butler, which he was doing anyway. It’s certainly a new look, though not really the most sensible one. Hosmer should be leading off; if he’s not going to hit for consistent power, his relevant on-base skills and occasional show of speed can help the team. Perhaps he’d help fantasy owners more scoring runs, stealing bases. Of course, there was nothing wrong with incumbent leadoff hitter Alex Gordon, either, but he was moved down to third. He frankly has less impact on the lineup there, but he homered and knocked in two Thursday, so that’s probably enough to convince Yost it’s a trend.
Struggling shortstop Alcides Escobar, carrying one of the worst on-base percentages on the squad, moved up to leadoff, and center fielder Lorenzo Cain hit second. Escobar posted a .331 OBP last season, but it was fueled a bit too much by batting average, not patience. Escobar walked 27 times against 100 strikeouts. Put simply, he’s not an ideal choice to lead off. Cain gets on base and the speed is a nice asset, but this is just rearranging of bodies hoping for a spark, and it’s not likely Hosmer ends up topping the lineup anytime soon. There’s actually some good in his underlying numbers, despite the loss of power: He’s hitting fewer ground balls than last season -- although still too many -- and quite a few more line drives. He’s just not hitting many fly balls, and if he’s going to hit home runs, he’ll need to raise that mark.
Hosmer isn’t killing fantasy owners with a .277 batting average; it hurts when a first baseman has only one more home run than his owner, but still, with such a high line-drive rate -- he’s ninth in the league at 27.3 percent -- I’d say Hosmer is likely to keep raising that batting average. At this point I’d take 15 home runs this season if he hits .277. After all, we don’t need a Casey Kotchman with speed, as that’s not what anyone envisioned, either. For now I’m still going Hosmer over Mitch Moreland, Adam LaRoche, Yonder Alonso, Justin Morneau and Paul Konerko, but time’s a wastin’.
Anyway, the Royals won Thursday, so let’s go briefly through this new lineup with my latest thoughts.
Escobar, SS: He stole 35 bases last year and certainly could repeat that mark, so I am buying low. His numbers actually look similar to 2012, except he’s really cut into his strikeout rate. Kudos to him. If he remains at leadoff, he’ll score runs.
Cain, CF: One of my preseason sleepers looks fine so far, although he’s hit only one home run and he’s had some trouble stealing bases successfully (4-for-7). Still, I could see 15 home runs and 15 steals, down from my original 20-20 hopes.
Gordon, LF: No concerns here. If he’s not leading off, he’ll knock in more runs. His walk rate is way down so far, which could poke a hole in that fancy .316 batting average soon. He’s also homered in three straight games, so perhaps his goal is power.
Butler, DH: Don’t think about selling low. With more walks than strikeouts and no reason to believe the power is waning, he can raise his batting average 50 more points.
Hosmer, 1B: Hopefully he doesn’t go another five weeks sans a home run. I’ll wait until June to see.
Salvador Perez, C: Very available in ESPN leagues, but there’s power lurking, and he has some movement in his .278 batting average. I could see him hitting .300 with 15 home runs.
Mike Moustakas, 3B: His home run Thursday was his third of the season but second in as many days. He’s not likely to hit better than .270, perhaps even for a full season, but I trust his power more than Hosmer at this point. Moustakas isn’t Pedro Alvarez; there’s upside for 25 home runs and a .260 batting average.
Jeff Francoeur, RF: A really nice fellow, but that .274 OBP is a real problem. Unfortunately it’s 2012 all over again. Owning Jarrod Dyson in a deeper league seems smart, but I don’t see Francoeur being benched or traded.
Chris Getz, 2B: Frankly, I cannot understand why the Royals play him. Elliot Johnson isn’t really any better, though. Johnny Giavotella isn’t exactly a future Hall of Famer, but still, he’s better than this.