PEORIA, Ariz. -- When Eric Hosmer and William Myers were drafted by the Kansas City Royals a decade or so ago they were given more or less the same speech by Royals general manager Dayton Moore. They were told that they were the future of the organization, that they were the players who would take Kansas City baseball from the bottom to the top. Moore wanted them to embrace the challenge. The Royals had been terrible for 15 years. There were people saying that they would never be good again.
"You," Moore told them, "are the players who will make the Kansas City Royals winners again."
They had different destinies. Hosmer stayed with the Royals and he played a pivotal role in the Royals' resurgence, not just as a team -- they obviously won a World Series -- but as an organization and a centerpiece of Kansas City. Myers was traded away to Tampa Bay for starter James Shields, who seemed the key to the deal, and reliever Wade Davis, who ended up being the key to the deal.
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Moore and assistant general manager J.J. Picollo both have said that trading away Myers was the hardest baseball thing they ever had to do.
And so, yes, it is a bit strange that Hosmer and Myers are together again, quite a bit older, much more established, but basically on the same mission -- this time the team they are looking to turn is the San Diego Padres.
"Yes, I look around at all the young players here," Hosmer says, "and it definitely makes me think back to when we started in Kansas City. I see the same energy, the same talent, the same excitement. The big difference now is I'm not one of those kids. I'm the veteran, it's my job to take some of them under my wings a little bit. That's really the only difference."
It's a big difference … and a fascinating part of the gamble that the San Diego Padres have taken. General manager A.J. Preller began in San Diego three seasons ago, and he began with an astonishing flurry of trades -- "Preller-palooza" people called it -- and in a few months he completely reshaped the roster. He turned over his outfield, reworked the left side of the infield, changed catchers and completely blew up the bullpen, in part by bringing in star closer Craig Kimbrel.
The Padres won three fewer games in 2015 than they had the year before.
This is a pretty common theme. Every first-time general manager who comes in to turn around a long-struggling team tends to learn the hard way that there are no quick fixes. Preller and the Padres began to break things down, to trade off some pieces for prospects, to do the hard and often unnoticed scouting and development work that goes with turning a team around. The Padres only won 68 and 71 games the last two seasons. But MLB Pipeline just rated the Padres the No. 1 farm system in all of baseball.
"This is a fun time," Preller says. "I mean, Spring Training is always fun, there's a sense of optimism, everyone ready to go. But, sure, I think this Spring Training is definitely fun. We are excited about our development, excited about young players. We feel like we have a lot of depth in our system, a lot of quality depth. Plus, we are excited about some of the young players in the big leagues, seeing what guys like [Manuel] Margot and [Dinelson] Lamet and others can do after getting a full season."
This all leads to the signing of Hosmer and the move of Myers. Hosmer was perhaps the most talked about free agent of the offseason because opinions on him vary so wildly. Well, that's not exactly right -- everyone has roughly the same scouting report on Hosmer. He's a good hitter with some power who has been a bit too inconsistent over his career. He looks like an outstanding fielder (four Gold Glove Awards) even if the defensive metrics don't love him. And he has off-the-chart character; everyone loves the energy, the enthusiasm and the leadership that Hosmer brings to the game.
What varied, then, was how much teams valued these traits, particularly the leadership part of the equation. The Boston Red Sox, for instance, seemed like a perfect fit for Hosmer, but fairly early in the free-agent process they re-signed Mitch Moreland, indicating they were out of the Hosmer race. Other teams that usually get involved in big-name free agency simply never got into the race. The Padres had never offered a $100 million contract before; they gave Hosmer an eight-year deal with a guaranteed $144 million.
"We obviously love the talent of the player," Preller says. "He's a big left-handed hitter who is hard to punch out, he defends well, he's a good athlete. … And, yes, definitely we love his character and think he will have a great influence on our young players. Not just him, of course. Clayton Richard is someone who has a great influence on our young pitchers. And Wil is another guy who shows our players how to be a professional."
Myers has already started that -- he eagerly agreed to change positions and go to the outfield in order to make room for Hosmer at first base.
"To have another guy here who's here for the long haul is exciting," Myers says. "The more we grow together and learn together, I think the better we'll become."
The Padres say that Hosmer's zeal and fire has already made a huge difference. He has made an effort to hang around the young players.
"It's going to be huge," Padres manager Andy Green says about Hosmer's passionate approach to baseball. "That was a huge part of the draw -- the professionalism, the love of baseball, the curious mind, the want to get better still. … I think he's elevated the atmosphere here real quickly with just his presence. He's elevated the level of expectation here really quickly."
Hosmer shrugs -- he feels like he's learning too. He felt strange being in a new organization.
"You know, you're looking around, you don't know them, they don't know you, it's a crazy feeling," he says. "But then you get on the field and it's the same. Baseball is baseball. That's the beauty of this game. I feel good now. I'm getting to know these guys. I'm seeing the talent here, it's great.
"Absolutely, I'd like to bring some of the things that we were able to do in Kansas City here. We were fearless, you know. We just knew that we were going to come through. I'd love to experience that feeling again here. I am confident we will."
By signing Hosmer, the Padres have let the league know that they are ready to make their push. It might not be this year. But it's coming.
"People keep asking me if I think we need to get to .500 this year," Preller says, "and I say that it's not so much about the win total. Are we taking the next step?"
I ask Hosmer about that.
"Well, it's really about simplifying the game," he says. "That's what I think about as a player. It's really cool to be around all these young players again, even if my role is different now. We're going to be exciting, just being around everyone for a couple of weeks I already know that."