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Eric Hosmer poised for big things in 2013

4/8/2013

Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer struggled in the team's first three-game series, and wasn't expected to start at all during the interleague weekend series in Philadelphia. After all, regular designated hitter Billy Butler is pretty established himself, and two players can't play first base at the same time. I attended Friday's Royals-Phillies game and was surprised to see Hosmer in the lineup, but not to see him explode with four hits and a walk, plus three RBIs in the 13-4 demolition.

The performance raised Hosmer's batting average from .111 to .357, and is another reminder why players shouldn't be evaluated from just a few games. Of course, in Hosmer's case the 2012 campaign was so frustrating -- for him, Royals fans and yes, fantasy owners -- that a slow start to this season will send many impatient fantasy owners to the waiver wire.

"It definitely felt good," a smiling Hosmer told me of his big Friday. "Days like this are big, and a big confidence booster. I'm not trying to do too much. I get my work in. I definitely trust my abilities. I stopped thinking about last year, I've moved on."

Of course, not all fantasy owners have moved on, evidenced by how different Hosmer's draft spot is this season. A year ago he was a fifth-round fantasy darling, and currently he's going in the 12th round, outside the top 100. Not that it's overly relevant but Hosmer hit well in spring training, with a .385 mark and slugged .596, offering hope that last season was the aberration. So what really happened?

"Last year I just put myself in a hole, and you want to get it all back quick," Hosmer said. "The biggest thing I learned was to let it all happen and trust your ability. My lower half, I want to keep it as simple as possible. I'm a big guy, but I'm not trying to do too much, just make consistent contact and not swing too hard. Every at-bat you're going in with a game plan."

The Royals' game plan did not include Hosmer the other two weekend games, as Butler helped carve up the Phillies with a seven-RBI outburst Sunday, but fantasy owners shouldn't devalue Hosmer based on road interleague games; the Royals are home all this pending week, back in designated hitter country where he and Butler can coexist comfortably, and are scheduled for only four more road games in NL parks (two each in Atlanta, St. Louis) before the All-Star break. Who knows, by then Hosmer could see occasional outfield duty as well. He did play three games there last season.

Hosmer's rookie season was so promising that it raised expectations for his second year a bit too high, in retrospect. Hosmer hit .232 with only 14 home runs, though he certainly helped with 16 stolen bases. He hit ground balls more than half the time, many to the right side of an eager and often pre-shifted infield, raising speculation that, as with Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward, a shoulder injury played a role. Only 23, my feeling has been that Hosmer is just too good to be that average (or below average) again, a sentiment that teammate Butler concurred with after the Friday game.

"He looks comfortable now, it was a big game for him today and hopefully he builds off that," Butler said. "If he keeps having at-bats like that it's going to be a fun year. Hitting is all confidence, and a lot of people were telling him stuff he needed to do and it almost overwhelmed him. This is the big leagues, you're facing tough guys every day. It spiraled on him. He's too good of a hitter, too good of a baseball player for that to happen again, but it happens to guys in their second year and you overcome it and become stronger from it."

Butler should know. In 2007 he made his mark as a rookie, hitting .292 and slugging .447, then regressing with more playing time his sophomore season. In Year 3 Butler blossomed and he's coming off his first All-Star season, as his doubles finally turned into home runs and he became a worthy fourth-round ADP choice. Hosmer has similar upside offensively as a run producer and adds the stolen base option. The Royals don't seem particularly worried about the left-handed hitter, and he rewarded the team Friday from Butler's usual No. 3 lineup spot. Hosmer singled three times to right field, but also walked and drove a ball to deep center field for a double against a pair of left-handers, which is significant. In 2012 Hosmer hit .220 off lefties with a .591 OPS. If he can stay consistent and confident and aggressive on the basepaths, Hosmer is capable of emerging as a top-10 first baseman this season.

Royals roundup: Shortstop Alcides Escobar stole 35 bases last season, and is well on his way to perhaps more after swiping his third base of opening week Sunday. Escobar spent roughly half of 2012 in the No. 2 lineup spot, and remains there this year. It's early, but his improved plate discipline certainly won't hurt. ... Outfielder Lorenzo Cain had a quiet first week, striking out in each of his five games, then getting three hits. Cain drew a few walks, but generally had poor at-bats. Jarrod Dyson waits in the wings to steal playing time if this continues. ... Tough weekend for closer Greg Holland, though it'd be a surprise if Kelvin Herrera replaced him so soon. Holland walked the bases loaded Saturday, surrendering a bases-clearing triple by Kevin Frandsen, and manager Ned Yost had a quick hook Sunday after Holland permitted two singles. At least it's clear Herrera is next in line. ... Right-hander Luis Mendoza impressed Saturday. He kept the ball down and fanned seven Phillies. Mendoza has never missed many bats, but did improve his strikeout rate the second half of 2012.