SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Eric Hosmer fist-bumps anyone and everyone he sees at Royals camp these days. I barely know the guy and am a conscientious non-fist-bumper, but I've already fist-bumped Hosmer twice today. He's irresistible that way.
People around the country may argue Hosmer's value as a ballplayer. He's a three-time Gold Glove winner who rates poorly in advanced defensive metrics. Hosmer is an All-Star seemingly in line for a huge contract, even though his offensive numbers do not exactly inspire awe. He has never slugged close to .500, never approached 30 homers in a season, never walked more than 61 times in a season.
But in and around Kansas City, Hosmer's energy, presence, charm, leadership and competitive spirit are what matter. Hosmer was called up to the Major Leagues as a 21-year-old back in 2011, and those were dark times for Royals baseball. He promised (both in words and action) a new age. Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, outfielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar, catcher Salvador Perez, left fielder Alex Gordon and others -- they intended to take Kansas City back to the baseball summit. They didn't care what happened before.
And then, crazy story, they actually did it.
Hosmer played lead guitar in the band.
"Hos," general manager Dayton Moore said, "is everything you want in a player on the field, off the field and in the community."
Well, sure. Hosmer's confidence (cockiness?) spread to teammates. His irrepressible joy for the game enchanted the heartland. It is Hosmer's daring (harebrained?) decision to try scoring on a routine ground ball to first in the World Series that stands out in the Royals' improbable (impossible?) rise. It is the play that said everything about those Royals. They were fearless. They were bold. They were a little bit guileless. And they didn't care that everybody wrote them off.
And now ...
"All right, let's go!" Hosmer shouts as he boards the team bus to Phoenix for a little Spring Training game against the Brewers. He pumps a fist in the air.
And now Hosmer -- and the Royals -- have to figure out where to go from here.
"It's hard," Moore admits.
Funny, this was supposed to be the easy part of the journey ... or at least the easier part. Moore took over as GM more than a decade ago, and at that time, just about every one of his friends in the game said he had to be out of his mind. "You can't win there," they each told him -- so many times that he could hear the echoes in his sleep.
The first few years, yes, they were tough. There were missteps. They were bad breaks. There were moments, a thousand of them, when it seemed like it wouldn't work.
"Trust the process," Moore said so often that those words became a sort of anti-slogan, something fans repeated when they wanted to make a point about the hopelessness of it all.
Then one thing worked, another thing worked, the Royals built the game's best farm system, those players began coming to the big leagues and making an impact. And then the Royals did win, they won big, they won thoroughly -- the pennant in 2014, the World Series in '15. They woke up Kansas City as a baseball town. They did the late-night talk shows. They went to the White House. They held a mind-boggling parade with estimates ranging from a quarter-million people to a half-million people to 800,000 people to ... Well, there were a lot of people there.
Getting to that parade should have been hardest thing, right?
But here's the thing about sports -- everyone has a plan to get to the top. Few think about what comes after. The Phillies went all in after winning their World Series in 2008. They spent a whole lot of money to keep that team together, they added great player after great player until it all caved in, leaving the Phils in a gigantic hole with a truckload of bad contracts. They are only now beginning to dig out of it. That's an old story.
And now here are the Royals, still a bit tipsy off the champagne that poured barely 16 months ago, and four of their key players -- Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain and Escobar -- become free agents at the end of the year. There is no way to sign them all, even if Kansas City wanted to. There might not be a way to sign any of them.
But the shift has already begun. Moore traded away speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson, a move Moore called the most emotionally difficult of his career. The Royals' rotation looks nothing at all like the one of the World Series team; gone are Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, Jeremy Guthrie and, tragically, Yordano Ventura.
More than anything, though, that bullpen has broken apart. That bullpen was Kansas City's greatest weapon.
"Everybody knew," says Royals assistant GM of player personnel J.J. Picollo, "that if we were leading after six innings, the game was over."
That team's closer, Greg Holland, has gone to the Rockies. That team's unhittable cyborg, Wade Davis, was traded to the Cubs. Ryan Madson is gone. Luke Hochevar is gone. Brandon Finnegan is gone. Only Kelvin Herrera remains, and he has graduated from seventh-inning guy to closer. He will be fronted by a Royals All-Star from the dark ages, Joakim Soria, and a promising kid from North Dakota, Matt Strahm.
"We think we have pitchers with the stuff and competitive nature to give us a bullpen that will close out games," Moore says. "But yes, it's an unknown. They're still unproven."
All of which is to say that even though the Royals are only a season removed from their World Series victory, this isn't the same team. And as players approach free agency and get older, well, Moore will have some very difficult -- very emotional -- decisions to make about where to take Kansas City. Does he do everything in his power -- meaning: Ask ownership to overspend -- to bring back those players who led the revival? Or does he begin again, another rebuilding process, perhaps kickstarted by trading away some of those very players?
"It's a balance, no question about it," Moore says. "On the one hand, we owe it to our core players to give them every chance to win. We feel like we've done that. I feel very good about this team. Our core group of players are still here, they trust each other, they win for each other. We've made some moves that I think will help us. We feel like we should be competitive.
"But we're obviously aware that some of our key players will have the chance to become free agents. We'd like them to stay in Kansas City, but we also want what's best for them. We will just have to see how it plays out. But we are certainly aware."
The crux of this "on the one hand, on the other hand" blueprint is that the Royals will do what they can to win this season. They signed pitchers Jason Hammel and Travis Wood along with designated hitter Brandon Moss, They traded for potential slugger Jorge Soler and veteran pitcher Nathan Karns. Moore figures that if the team can win, other issues should take care of themselves. Winning keeps this team together for another year, at least, and maybe inspires the players to find a way to stay in Kansas City.
And if they don't win? Moore doesn't even need to say it.
"We have to live in the moment," he said. "We can't live in the past."
Hosmer believes the Royals will win. But then, he always did. It was his certainty that Kansas City was destined for great things that helped shape the team's unlikely climb.
You could argue, pretty convincingly, that Hosmer's career production has been slightly disappointing. He was a massive prospect after the Royals took him with the third pick in the 2008 Draft. Some scouts called Hosmer a future home run champion because of his unlimited power. Others called him a future batting champion because of his great approach. Joey Votto seemed the best comparison. One scout told me, "Oh, he will be better than Votto."
Then you look at Hosmer's career slash line of .277/.335/.428 -- it doesn't look anything like Votto's after his first six seasons (.316/.415/.553). If anything has marked Hosmer's early career, it has been his inconsistency; he has alternated good years with subpar ones. Last year was a subpar season -- he hit just .266, and even with those 25 home runs, his slugging percentage still ranked in the lower half among American League first basemen. Of course, if history holds, that means 2017 will be Hosmer's good year, just in time for free agency.
Still, nothing about Hosmer's career feels disappointing, because he has been such a force in the Royals' rise. He's a player with movie star looks (a Miss California once tweeted that she would like to date him), with exuberant charisma (fist bumps galore!) and a handful of big hits that came at exactly the right time. Hosmer's agent is Scott Boras, so you would fully expect him to test the market next year and find out what he's worth. You would fully expect for him to be well out of Kansas City's price range.
And yet, losing Hosmer ... Well, it's something that nobody in Kansas City wants to think about. You ask any of the players about it, and they shrug and say the same three things:
1. Nobody knows how this will play out.
2. It's out of their control.
3. The only goal is to win the World Series. Do that, and the rest works itself out.
Moore, though, is in a different spot. He's built this thing from the ground up. He watched his team win. And now Moore knows that, as with all championship teams, time slips away.
"I've said it before, but it's true -- I won't lose any sleep over this," Moore says. "We love Hos. We love Lorenzo Cain. We love Mike Moustakas. We love Escobar. We love all of our guys, and we will try our best to win with them and try our best to re-sign them. That's all we can do.
"But however it works, I'll always root for them. They'll always be our guys."