Play The Kids

If it were me, Ryan O’Hearn would be the Royal tasked with replacing Eric Hosmer. And while that in itself would be enough to be getting on with if you’re O’Hearn, there’s Nick Pratto nipping at your heels and really, aren’t first basemen the most interchangeable pieces on a baseball chessboard? Isn’t that why Hunter Dozier was given so many reps at first base this spring?

As follows are the only two things the Royals should worry about in 2018:

  1. Losing just oodles of ballgames
  2. Figuring out if any of their young players are worth a damn

That first one is gonna take care of itself. As much as I like Whit Merrifield, as happy as I am that Jorge Soler is blasting baseballs into orbit during Spring Training and as primed as we all are for one final quality Alex Gordon year at the plate (you heard it here first), the Royals are gonna lose. They’re not gonna lose like some speculate…

…largely because of math and so forth, but even the most optimistic optimists would keep the Royals on the wrong side of the Wild Card chase by mid-June. Fans won’t like this, which is fine and fair; if I’m gonna watch this group 150+ times a year, I’m not super-pumped up about 90ish losses either.

But facts are facts and facts that pencil in Ian Kennedy as a No. 2 starter are largely indisputable.

It’s the second part that’s more intriguing, and, to my mind, being under-served. Gordon has been paid, he’s gonna play; we’ve all made peace with that. Same with Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez, although their qualities as still-functional ballplayers offer merits. Aside from Merrifield (who could regress in his full sophomore year, don’t @ me, you know it’s true), the rest of the lineup is gonna be either young dudes with something to prove or washed vets with no chance of mattering two years from now.

Gimme the children.

(Sorry. That sentence sounded like it was uttered by a dude in a windowless white van. I’ll try again.)

Let me figure out if there are prospects at first base, corner outfield, shortstop and all across the pitching staff who might have something to contribute. Lucas Duda might be the difference between 75 and 77 wins; whoop-de-doo. Ryan O’Hearn might be the difference in a 2022 ALDS exit and a chance to play for a pennant.

I should probably elaborate.

No one—not Dayton Moore, not Ned Yost, not Dale Sveum, not even Jim Caviezel—thinks Ryan O’Hearn is the next stud first base prospect for the Royals. If they did, the drafting of Nick Pratto would’ve been quite superfluous. Even though I’m high on Pratto—I think there’s a twinge, a touch, a skosh of Hosmer about him—he’s not a guarantee. He’s 19 years old. If he’d gone to USC, he’d be asking one of the older student managers to buy him beer right now, assuming he’s as corruptible as college students tend to be.

(NOTE: Nick Pratto might’ve never so much as touched a beer in his life. College is different for all of us. I don’t know what minor league baseball is like. I just remember being 19 years old. Vaguely.)

But let’s say Pratto is everything we hope he is; if so, that’s swell and the Royals have found the first next Franchise Cornerstone™. O’Hearn offers the kind of versatility a future playoff team craves; he still needs to be cultivated.

For starters, O’Hearn can do more than just pick at first. In more than 2,700 chances at first across four minor league seasons, he’s committed just 26 errors, but he’s been adequate at both left and right field; in fact, there are some who think he projects better in the corners than at the sack. He’s the kind of good-bat, adequate glove guy that’s a luxury on good teams but won’t kill a bad one, with the added bonus that he’s under team control for essentially ever*.

*-probably innacurate, but until MLB overhauls its arcane arbitration rules I’ll assume I’m right.

And you know what? Yeah, his batted-ball profile was bad last year—under 20 percent line-drive rate across both Double-A and Triple-A. That’s not good. I want that to be better, and I imagine he does too. But he’s got a decent eye (11.9 percent walk rate across all both levels) and stats belie certain truths: that last season, he spent the majority of it in Triple-A Omaha as a middle-of-the-order force (18 homers, 26 doubles) before dropping down to take more at-bats in Northwest Arkansas as MLB players went down to get extra late-season at-bats. He was a middle-of-the-order bat in Triple-A but dropped down so he could keep playing. I admire that in a player.

Do I admire that more than I admire what Lucas Duda can give at the less-hot-corner? Tangibly, no, because Lucas Duda is a well-regarded big-leaguer who has done it before. Lucas Duda smacked 30 homers across two leagues last year—the AL and the NL, not Double-A and Triple-A. Unless he’s totally spent, Lucas Duda will perform better in 2018 than Ryan O’Hearn will.

He’s also 32 years old. What good is he doing—hitting well-enough to get a mildly regarded prospect in July, assuming everything works out just fine? He could. I’m even mildly hopeful. But what I’d rather see is O’Hearn and his ilk contributing and providing hope that the future could look better than the present.

And if not, the Royals lose 92 games instead of 89. Will that move the needle for you as a Royals obsessive this year? Dear reader, I hope and pray it will not.

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