Of course he knows the Question is coming.
He's just 22, but he's not blind: Like everyone else, he sees the silly money being thrown around in baseball, he sees the economics of the game being turned upside down and inside out. He sees the game's megastars signing historic contracts. But he also sees young players signing unprecedented long-term deals—including many of his teammates, players who rose through the minors with him, getting four- and five-year contracts even as they're still learning to hit a major league breaking ball.
It's a Thursday afternoon in Anaheim, and here is Eric Hosmer, the best young first baseman in the game, The Great Hope of Kansas City, a home-run-belting phenom with a slipshod chinstrap beard and faux-hawk, a baseball badass who also happens to be an all-around good guy. "If I had a daughter," says Mr. Royal, George Brett, "he's the guy I'd want her to marry—and trust me, that's saying a lot for a ballplayer."
Hosmer has yet to play a full season; he has yet to appear in an All-Star Game; his name is not Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg—but he's a phenom that players all over the majors are gushing over. "I was on the golf course with Joe Nathan, Michael Young and Ian Kinsler," says Royals rightfielder Jeff Francoeur. "We're on the 1st hole, and they're asking me all these questions about Hos. All they want to know about is Hos. They're like, The pitches he takes, the way he carries himself, that swing—the kid is a stud!"
Before a game last September, as Hosmer was finishing his smashing debut tour through the American League (after his May 6, 2011, call-up he hit .293 with 19 homers in 128 games), a bat from 41-year-old slugger Jim Thome, then with the Indians, arrived in the Royals' clubhouse. Word had gotten out that Thome was a player Hosmer admired, and Thome returned the compliment with the inscription on the bat: "Eric—Pumped to watch you play from my couch for the next 15 years when I'm retired."
Hosmer is one of the game's most talented young stars, and he plays in a baseball-crazed, Royal-blue-bleeding city that is scarred after watching two decades' worth of baseball heroes leave for brighter lights and bigger dollars. That's why the Question looms everywhere he goes—it's in the air here in the visitors' clubhouse at Angel Stadium, where he is sitting at his locker, dripping after an afternoon workout. He talks about how he trained with his new pal Alex Rodriguez at the Yankees star's Miami mansion over the off-season. ("It's ridiculous how seriously he takes the small things like hitting off a tee," Hosmer says.) He talks about the Royals' chances this season. And he talks about the momentum gathering in Kansas City: Yes, the team got off to a disappointing 13--20 start this season, but the front office has locked up several young, homegrown players to long-term contracts—positioning the franchise to be a contender for years to come. Or so it's hoped. "It definitely excites you—seems like it was just yesterday that I was sitting with these guys in the minor league locker rooms," Hosmer says.
Then he pauses. Because he knows that somehow every conversation always leads back to his own lack of a long-term contract, he has an answer for a question that hasn't even been asked. "As for me, I don't want to think too far ahead," he says. "I want to live now, in the moment, take it day by day and do whatever I can to help this team win right now."
The Eric Hosmer story is a story about a baseball phenom, a son of a firefighter and a nurse from South Florida who learned his golden swing by taking hacks at the $189 Tony Gwynn--endorsed Solohitter in his backyard, with his older brother, Mikey Jr., every day until the sun went down. It's the story of a phenom who hit his way to a $6 million signing bonus (the largest in Royals history at the time) after being drafted in 2008, then hit his way through the minors and arrived in the Show at age 21. "He came right in here and took the third spot in the lineup without blinking," says Francoeur. "The last time a kid did that? It might be Chipper Jones in Atlanta."
But the Eric Hosmer story is also a story about the new economics of baseball: the silly money being thrown around, the monster cable-TV deals that are changing the game's landscape, the sudden explosion of long-term contracts, maybe even the end of free agency as we know it. It all circles back to Hosmer, the Royals and their future together. It may seem premature to speculate about a 22-year-old who isn't eligible to become a free agent until after the 2017 season. But now more then ever, young players everywhere are choosing between signing lucrative long-term deals that lock them up through their arbitration-eligible years and might delay their free agency or betting on themselves to land an even bigger payday by getting to the open market as soon as possible.
For Hosmer, the Question loomed from the moment he arrived in the majors, an event that sold nearly 10,000 walk-up tickets at Kauffman Stadium. Hosmer's agent, Scott Boras, was already posturing for the 2017 Eric Hosmer Free-Agent Sweepstakes. "As [Mark] Teixeira had his own market and [Prince] Fielder had his own market, Hosmer will have his own," Boras told a reporter. "And something tells me it's going to be a rather eventful one."
Speaking last month, Boras toned down his rhetoric, saying of Hosmer, "Evaluating and understanding the value of that kind of player and talent, that's a process that's going to take years." On the industrywide trend of long-term contracts, the notoriously uncompromising negotiator was more strident: "Whether it's in the case of a Madison Bumgarner or a Matt Moore or any of those other deals, I find those contracts to be unconscionable."
A few days earlier Bumgarner, the Giants' 22-year-old lefthander with 20 career wins coming into this year, had signed a five-year, $35 million extension with the Giants—a deal that surpassed the five-year, $14 million contract that Moore, a 22-year-old lefty with one major league start under his belt at the time, signed in December as the largest ever for a pitcher with less than two years of service time. "My job is to teach our players to [maximize their value]," Boras says, "and I can't fathom how [any agent] would give direction to players [to sign] contracts of this nature at that young of an age."
The long-term contract is a big gamble for the player who might cost himself tens of millions of dollars by signing away his arbitration and free agent years and for the team betting on unproven talent. Hosmer himself has thrown that risk into sharp relief. After tearing through the league last year, he has struggled in 2012: Though he was second on the team with five home runs, he was batting only .180 average and had a .586 OPS in his first 33 games.
Still, long-term deals have become all the rage, with teams trying to retain as much of their talent as possible at current market prices. Many executives believe that the trend has already led to a shrinking free-agent pool. As a result they expect the cost of free agents to skyrocket even more in the coming years—making it imperative for small- and mid-market teams who can't compete in bidding wars to stockpile assets at today's prices. The Rays, despite a minuscule payroll, are built to win for years to come in the high-rent AL East because they had the foresight to lock up many of their core players (Moore, ace James Shields, third baseman Evan Longoria and outfielder Ben Zobrist, among them) to team-friendly long-term deals. "There's an urgency to go this route," says an executive with a small-market AL team. "[Long-term deals] are a risk for us—but we can afford to make a $10 million mistake. We can't afford to make any mistakes with a free agent."
The Royals have adopted the lock-them-up blueprint: Since January 2011 they have handed out extensions to 26-year-old designated hitter Billy Butler (four years, $30 million), 25-year-old shortstop Alcides Escobar (four years, $10.5 million), 28-year-old outfielder Alex Gordon (four years, $37.5 million) and 22-year-old catcher Salvador Perez (five years, $7 million). "There are a lot of factors, a lot of risks with these contracts," says general manager Dayton Moore. "You have to expect the player to perform for the lifetime of the contract. You have to expect that the contract isn't going to sap the incentive from the player. You have to expect the player will stay healthy." (In fact, one of Moore's long-term assets has already gone down with an injury. Less than a month after he signed, Perez, one of Hosmer's closest friends on the team, had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. He will be out until at least mid-June.)
Two big pieces of the Royals' rebuilding plan are still unsigned: Hosmer and 23-year-old Mike Moustakas, who is regarded as one of the best young third basemen in the game. Both are Boras clients. Is now the ideal time for the team to make an aggressive push for long-term deals for both? "I don't know," Moore says. "I know who we are as a market. We know full well we're not going to keep them all—the economics of the game simply won't allow it."
Moore knows, too, that the economics of the game are changing dramatically, that the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening. That's mostly because of a new game-changer: lucrative local television deals that are enriching teams at both spectrums, from the Dodgers—whose recent sale for a record $2.15 billion was possible in large part because their broadcast rights could fetch at least $3 billion—to the small-market Reds, who could sign first baseman Joey Votto to a staggering $225 million extension in April because of the windfall they could soon see from their own TV deal.
"The escalation of revenues coming from local sources is pushing other teams to join the Yankees and Red Sox at the top of the mountain, and it's allowing teams without a mega TV deal to get left behind," says economist Vince Gennaro, author of Diamond Dollars. "It was fairly easy to determine who the haves and have-nots were seven, eight years ago. Today I'm not so sure. Maybe the teams that are locked into long-term TV deals from five years ago will become the have-nots."
The Royals have a contract with Fox Sports Midwest for the next eight years reportedly worth about $20 million per—a deal that might look small when the Reds renegotiate their own contract with Fox Sports Ohio, which they're likely to do before it expires in 2016. The Royals' TV contract would seem to doom their chances to lock up a premium star like Hosmer, though owner David Glass—the former Walmart CEO who has long been under fire in Kansas City for his stinginess—could decide to open up his wallet to lock up his franchise player. Or, as Gennaro says, "The Royals have so much talent that maybe they can be competitive in the next two or three years, and maybe that enables them to go back to their network and redo their deal—maybe extend it with more up-front dollars, and before Hosmer gets to that free-agent window, they're able to do something."
But by then it may be too late to sign Hosmer for anything less than Joey Votto money. The clock is ticking in Kansas City. Someday soon the Royals will approach Hosmer, and he will sit down with Boras and his family and talk about his future. They'll talk about the security of a long-term deal that's likely to reach nine figures. They'll talk about the possibility of becoming Mr. Royal for life. But they'll also look at 2017 and wonder why Hosmer can't be the superstar who signs the game's next landmark megadeal. In a world where Votto gets $225 million from a small-market Midwest team, why can't Hosmer, if he becomes the player everyone expects, get $300 million? Or more?
If there were ever a player for the Royals to double down on, it would be one with the talent and marketability of Hosmer. Despite his slow start, there was no talk of demoting him to the minors, no panic over a phenom who is believed to be as much of a sure thing as there can be in baseball. "He's been pressing a bit," says a scout. "But this is a kid who's hit everywhere he's been because he knows how to make adjustments. I'd be surprised if he doesn't start raking soon."
Hosmer has always seemed destined for greatness. On the day of the amateur draft in 2008, current Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who was then a private hitting instructor, was on the phone with his son Cameron, a first baseman taken by the Rays in the 11th round in '11. Cameron asked his father if he saw who the Royals picked with the third selection. "I said, 'Yeah, some high school kid from Florida.'" Seitzer says. "And then he told me: 'We faced this kid in travel tournaments, and he was carving us up as a pitcher, throwing curves, changeups, fastballs and locating. He was every bit as good a pitcher as he was a hitter."
Seitzer remembers the young Hosmer for another reason: "He was big, real big. Let's just say he was a much wider load than most." Hosmer's childhood size became somewhat legendary after one of his Little League photos surfaced on an MLB Network show (the host thereafter likened Hosmer, who was in studio, to Cartman), but by the time he was slicing up pitchers at American Heritage High, where he was a two-time Florida player of the year, he was the specimen he is now. "Tall, lean, the prototypical hitter," says Billy Butler. "You look at him and you just think, Man, he just looks like the perfect baseball player."
Hosmer, who's listed now at 6'4' 'and 230 pounds, was one of the first to arrive from the highly touted minor league system that Moore built after taking over as G.M. in June 2006. "He walked twice in his first game—who does that? I don't think I took a pitch," says Butler. "He just has a calmness—he knows it's going to work out."
Says Brett, "When I got called up, I was scared to death. I don't see any fear in this guy—none whatsoever."
Hosmer's stroke is fast and vicious—"He has very quick hands, like Robinson Cano's," says Seitzer—but what people most rave about is the way he hits for power to the opposite field. "Usually people develop opposite-field power later," says Brett. "I didn't develop opposite-field power until I was 28, and I didn't really have it until I was 33. If he keeps understanding that he's strong enough to hit it out to left field in any ballpark, that he doesn't have to pull every ball, then he's going to be a complete player."
Brett and Hosmer first met in August 2008, the day after Hosmer signed his record bonus deal. Hosmer was sitting in a window seat on a plane headed from Kansas City to Utah—he was on his way to meet up with the Royals' rookie league team in Spokane—when the woman next to him got a tap on the shoulder. A well-tanned man in his 50s wanted to know if the woman would be up for swapping seats. "I looked up, did a double take, and was like, That's George Brett!" Hosmer recalls. The Royals legend squeezed into the middle seat next to the future face of the franchise and introduced himself. The two immediately hit it off. "He's wearing this Royals hat, he was so excited, grinning from ear to ear," says Brett, laughing. "He looked like a dork. A total nerd."
For the last 20 years Brett has been holding court in Kansas City, telling the same stories about the bleeping pine tar game, about hit number 3,000, about Quiz, Bye Bye, Skates and the rest of the 1985 championship team. Mullet is ready to pass the torch. "These kids in our farm system, most of them weren't born when I was playing," says Brett. "Out in the back fields during spring training a lot of them don't know who the hell I am. But if they make a big splash, then suddenly they're getting compared to me. Hos is getting the comparisons now, but let me tell you, he's the real deal. And hopefully he'll be in Kansas City for the next 20 years."
Of course everything leads back to the Question. Will the homegrown hero stay in Kansas City? That may depend in part on the game's changing economics, but in the end the decision will be Hosmer's to make. "If we start winning, it's going to be easier—for a player, it's all about playing in October," says Brett. "If we keep on losing the way we have been for the last 10 years?" Brett pauses. "Well, let's not think about that. Let's enjoy what we've got right now."
IT MAY SEEM PREMATURE TO SPECULATE ABOUT A CONTRACT FOR A 22-YEAR-OLD WHO ISN'T A FREE AGENT UNTIL 2017. IT ISN'T.
IF THERE WERE EVER A PLAYER FOR THE ROYALS TO GAMBLE ON, IT WOULD BE ONE WITH THE TALENT AND MARKETABILITY OF HOSMER.
Since the end of last season, 12 players with less than three years of service time have signed contract extensions that lock them up through their arbitration-eligible years. Here are the six most notable deals.
5 years, $21 million; team option for one year (total potential value: $33 million) Team control through 2017
5 years, $14 million; team options for three years (total potential value: $37.5 million) Team control through 2019
5 years, $35 million; team options for two years (total potential value: $57.5 million) Team control through 2019
5 years, $7 million; team options for three years (total potential value: $21.8 million) Team control through 2019
5 years, $25 million; team option for one year (total potential value: $33 million) Team control through 2017
6 years, $51.5 million; team option for one year (total potential value: $65 million) Team control through 2018
Photograph by JOHN BIEVER
BY GEORGE, HE'LL GET IT Hosmer's start to the '12 season hasn't been as smashing as his rookie campaign, but his sweet lefthanded stroke continues to inspire comparisons with Royals Hall of Famer Brett.
DAVID RICHARD/US PRESSWIRE
GREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES
CHRIS PONDY/ICON SMI
KIM KLEMENT/US PRESSWIRE
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
CENTER OF ATTENTION One economist suggests that a Royals renaissance led by Hosmer (middle, between teammates Aaron Crow, left, and Mike Moustakas) could help the team negotiate a more lucrative TV deal.