Royals prospects relishing chance to mature in minors

SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) Hunter Dozier strode through the clubhouse at the Royals’ spring training facility with a relatively serene disposition, one you’d be hard-pressed to find in another former first-round pick.

Why he seems so unencumbered is simple.

Dozier plays third base and has dabbled at shortstop on a team that has All-Stars signed to multiyear deals at both positions. So even if the strapping youngster made good on all the expectations that typically come with his draft status, the reality is he would probably be toiling away in the minors anyway.

“That’s fine with me,” Dozier said. “There’s a ton of talented guys in the big leagues right now, and you watch that team play, there’s no question those guys deserve to be there. They won a World Series. So for guys like me in the minors, all we’re doing is working as hard as we can.”

Taking advantage of the time to develop, too.

One of the byproducts of so much recent success – three straight winning seasons, two straight World Series, a championship last fall – is that an organization that knew nothing but failure for two decades now has the ability to allow promising young players to mature.

Whereas Dozier may have been rushed to the big leagues a decade ago, he can now spend time shoring up his defense. Fellow first-round pick Bubba Starling has time to fill the holes in his swing. Promising pitcher Kyle Zimmercan work on his delivery, fine-tune his off-speed stuff, tinker with his repertoire and get the kind of seasoning that Jimmy Gobble and J.P. Howell and others were not afforded in the past.

Gobble was considered a future ace out of the 1999 draft. But the Royals were so desperate for quality starters back then that after just four solid months at Double-A, Gobble was called up to the big leagues, skipping Triple-A entirely. He struggled not only that season but much of his career, which ended with a 22-23 record and 5.29 ERA over parts of seven seasons.

Howell was a top prospect who made just one start at Triple-A before he was called up to the Royals in 2005. He wound up going 3-5 with a 6.19 ERA and was traded to Tampa Bay the following year.

Even some current Royals experienced the whirlwind trip to the majors.

Take outfielder Alex Gordon, now a three-time All-Star. The second overall pick in the 2005 draft was supposed to be the next George Brett, even playing third base. But he made his major league debut two years later, and within four years had bottomed out – he hit .215 with eight homers in 74 games.

“A lot of it is where you’re at as an organization,” said Gordon, who managed to turn his career around and recently signed a $72 million, four-year deal to stay with Kansas City. “Back then we were building.”

Eric Hosmer, the third overall choice in the 2008 draft, made his major league debut three years later. He hit just .232 the following year, when some began to wonder whether he’d be another bust. To his credit, he learned on the job and is now one of the Royals’ core players.

“There’s definitely pros and cons to each way,” Hosmer said. “When I was coming up, my first couple years there wasn’t really a veteran presence or veteran leadership going on in here. There were guys helping but all the guys that were supposed to be older guys were two or three years into their careers.

“I think that’s so cool about the organization now,” he said. “The big league roster in the field is pretty much set, so the young guys that come up, they’re able to learn, see how everything is done.”

Indeed, the Royals arrived at spring training this season knowing that all but a couple of jobs, mostly in the rotation and bullpen, were wrapped up. And those that remained are almost certainly going to be won by a bevy of veterans who have proven they can be productive.

Meanwhile, all those prospects are able to focus on improving, rather than on making the big-league team when spring training wraps up.

“Right now there really is no rush,” Dozier said, “because there’s nowhere to go. I had a rough year last year and that’s what the minor leagues are about. I had to figure out some things. If I got rushed to the big leagues, I would have been sent back down. Now I’ll know what to expect.”