2018-03-06 08:16:04
On Baseball: After Reviving the Royals, Hosmer and Cain Try to Spark Other Teams

08:16, March 06 207 0

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Early in Eric Hosmer’s career, when it was clear he would be a star first baseman, a fan at a Rotary Club asked a pointed question to Dayton Moore, the general manager of the Kansas City Royals. For decades, the fans had yearned for a player like Hosmer with the talent and charisma to stir a dormant franchise. But this fan was worried. He wanted to know if the Royals could possibly sign Hosmer to a long-term contract.

“Just enjoy him,” Moore replied, recalling the conversation in a spring training interview last week. “Enjoy watching him play. And, no, we probably won’t be able to keep him here long-term. But that’s O.K. Just enjoy watching him play. Let’s not wish away today.”

The Royals made the most of their todays with Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain. After 28 seasons without a playoff appearance, they rumbled into two World Series in a row, losing in 2014 and winning in 2015. Every small-market franchise tries to build through homegrown talent, and most fall short of a title. The Royals actually broke through.

Now Hosmer is a San Diego Padre, after signing for eight years and $144 million last month. Cain signed a five-year, $80 million contract to rejoin the Milwaukee Brewers, who traded him to the Royals in 2010.

Other stalwarts from the World Series teams are also gone: Wade Davis, Ben Zobrist, Johnny Cueto, Ryan Madson, James Shields, Jarrod Dyson, and the unsigned Greg Holland and Mike Moustakas. A starter, Yordano Ventura, was killed in a car crash in the Dominican Republic before last season. Hosmer wears Ventura’s No. 30 with the Padres, a lasting bond to a team and a town he helped change.

“They kept hearing over and over again that guys that would come in and get back to being a playoff threat again,” Hosmer said. “It took 30 years for that to happen. We had a special relationship, and the fans appreciated the way we played. We would show emotion, and they would show emotion back.”

That was not always true in Kansas City, where hopelessness had sometimes reigned. In 1999, thousands of fans walked out of Kauffman Stadium in the middle of a game against the Yankees, protesting baseball’s tilted salary structure. Some littered the field with fake $100 bills.

The Royals lost 97 games that season, just another in a sad string of gloom. Moore arrived in 2006 and finally hit on the winning formula for a team with a modest payroll and a spacious park: contact hitters, slick defenders, dominant relievers and short-term No. 1 starters acquired for prospects.

It was always supposed to be temporary. That is how it works in modern baseball, and why teams scramble to align their top prospects’ peak seasons. If a bunch of young players mature at the same time, the team will probably get a few years of prime performance at affordable rates. When the players then get too expensive, most of them disperse.

The Royals have kept some of their core players; left fielder Alex Gordon is signed through 2019, and starter Danny Duffy and catcher Salvador Perez through 2021. Duffy, who earns $14 million this season, wanted more players to join them.

“I was hoping if one guy comes back, or two guys come back, maybe it’ll spark another guy to take that and run with it, too,” he said. “But the majority of guys I came up with are in other jerseys or unsigned. It’s tough to see those guys go, but that’s the nature of the beast. You definitely wish them well.”

Cain spends his off-seasons in Norman, Okla., and attended the Oklahoma City Thunder game last winter when Kevin Durant returned as a member of the Golden State Warriors. Cain remembers the vitriol from the fans, who jeered Durant whenever he touched the ball.

“It was not fun for him,” Cain said. “There were a lot of boos. Kind of tough to see, but that’s just how it is.”

Yet when Cain returns to Kansas City with the Brewers next month, he does not expect the same treatment. Some Royals fans in Arizona have already wished Cain and Hosmer well. Cain called Royals fans “the best fans in the world, for sure,” and no one around the team believes the players tarnished their legacy by leaving.

“They did so much for the game of baseball in Kansas City,” said Gordon, who grew up in Nebraska and went to Royals games every summer. “They were a part of changing the culture. Guys are going to come and go, and it’s not always their decision; it’s just how it is. But for what they did in Kansas City, the Royals fans are always going to be grateful.”

Winning a championship does not guarantee a player a lifelong glow; Boston fans never forgave Johnny Damon for signing with the hated Yankees. But Hosmer and Cain left the American League and joined teams not known for spending.

Neither the Padres nor the Brewers had ever given such a lucrative contract in free agency. Neither team has won a championship, either — and, incredibly, Hosmer and Cain are the only players on either team’s 40-man roster who have ever played in the World Series. For both, setting an example is part of their job description.

Cain said that when Shields came to Kansas City from Tampa Bay, a regular playoff contender, “he showed us how to lead — and once he left, we all became leaders.”

“You need all 25 guys to come together and help push each other,” Cain said. “That’s what I’m trying to show these guys.”

The Brewers, at 86-76, had the best record of any team that missed the playoffs last season. In doing so, they sped up their competitive timetable. They agreed on Cain’s contract within hours of another bold move: a trade with Miami for Christian Yelich, a 26-year-old outfielder under contract for five more seasons.

The deals created a bit of a logjam for the Brewers, who also have Domingo Santana, who hit 30 homers last season, and the franchise pillar Ryan Braun in the outfield. The Brewers hope to find time for all the outfielders by sometimes using Braun at first base, where he could spell the slugging Eric Thames against some left-handers.

“You don’t really have any say over where you get traded, but I’m excited to be here,” Yelich said. “To be a part of an outfield with those guys, it’s going to be special. It’s exciting to go into the season expecting to win, hopefully for the foreseeable future.”

The Padres also added multiple veterans to their lineup, trading with Philadelphia for shortstop Freddy Galvis and with the Yankees for third baseman Chase Headley. San Diego has endured nine losing seasons in the last 10 years, but has hope in a slogan on Hosmer’s clubhouse T-shirt.

On the front, beneath a Padres logo, it says “#HotTalentLava,” with “= Major League Rock” on the back. Scott Boras, Hosmer’s agent, used those terms to describe the Padres’ percolating farm system, which MLB.com ranks as the best in baseball. For Hosmer, it is a familiar feeling.

“There’s so many similarities to what I was a part of in Kansas City, as far as a group of prospects coming up,” he said. “It’s been fun. It’s one thing to hear about all the guys, but now to finally get out on the field and see what these guys are about, it gets you fired up.”

Moore could have left Kansas City, too, if he had pushed the Royals’ owner, David Glass, to allow him to interview for the Atlanta Braves’ general manager job last fall. Before joining the Royals, Moore had spent 12 years with the Braves, who now have a thriving farm system and seem much closer to contending.

Yet Moore was content to leave the decision to Glass, who did not want to lose his team’s architect. Moore’s passion for the job has never waned, he said, even as he starts over.

“Every team is special, regardless of the win-loss record,” he said. “And if you are leading in a relentless and focused way, it becomes exhausting, it becomes tiring, but that’s the privilege of leadership.”

The Royals had hoped to retain Hosmer as their leader in the clubhouse. But the Padres made a richer offer, and even if Hosmer had returned, the Royals still probably would have struggled. Their rotation was woeful last season, and Moore has been forced to chisel talent from the bullpen.

To entice teams to take expensive veterans off his payroll, Moore had to trade Scott Alexander and Ryan Buchter, relievers who are young, effective and cheap. Alexander went to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-way deal that sent reliever Joakim Soria to the Chicago White Sox, and Oakland took outfielder Brandon Moss — who has since been cut — as a way to get Buchter.

Those deals saved the Royals $14 million, and they replaced Hosmer by giving a one-year, $3.5 million contract to Lucas Duda, the former Mets first baseman whose errant throw in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series allowed Hosmer to score the tying run in the ninth inning.

That sequence is etched in Royals lore. After Cain took a full-count slider to draw a leadoff walk against Matt Harvey, he stole second and scored on a double by Hosmer. Moustakas moved Hosmer to third with a groundout, and Perez bounced a ball to third baseman David Wright, who threw to Duda for the out at first. Hosmer charged home, knowing that both Wright and Duda had erratic throwing arms.

With a good throw by Duda, the Mets would have won the game. But Hosmer’s gamble paid off, embodying the will and urgency of a team that never cared about the odds. The Royals finished the night as champions, and their flag — planted by Hosmer, Cain and so many others in a proud alumni club — will always fly.

“They’re forever a part of Royals history,” Moore said. “We want all of our players, if they leave, to leave on a white horse.”