Hunter Dozier, the Royals’ No. 8 prospect, bounces back from injury-riddled year with Storm Chasers

Hunter Dozier, the Royals’ No. 8 prospect, bounces back from injury-riddled year with Storm Chasers
In 2013, Hunter Dozier was the last in a stretch of top-10 draft picks by the Kansas City Royals. Dozier is off to a fast start this season with the Omaha Storm Chasers. (Courtesy Photo)

From 2005 to 2013, Kansas City regularly picked near the top of the MLB draft.

A franchise-record string of nine consecutive losing seasons placed the Royals in the top 10 in the draft order eight times in nine years. Kansas City picked 12th on the one occasion it wasn’t in the top 10.

Early on in that stretch, the Royals made an impact with those draft picks. Alex Gordon (2005), Mike Moustakas (2007) and Eric Hosmer (2008) became stars who fueled Kansas City to back-to-back World Series appearances and the franchise’s first championship in 30 years. And Luke Hochevar (2007) was a starter who became a reliever after Tommy John surgery and pitched in four World Series games in 2015.

But after 2008, Kansas City didn’t fare as well in the first round. Aaron Crow (2009) pitched out of the bullpen for four seasons and represented the Royals at an All-Star Game (because somebody had to), and Christian Colon (2010) drove in the winning run in the 2015 World Series but was never an everyday player. Bubba Starling (2011) and Kyle Zimmer (2012) haven’t reached their potential and have seen their status as prospects diminished as injuries have plagued them, especially since reaching Omaha.

Hunter Dozier is the lone prospect remaining from that nine-year stretch of high first-round draft picks. But the infielder out of Stephen F. Austin, selected eighth in 2013, is bouncing back from his own injury issues. His 2017 featured a strained oblique, a broken hamate, a fractured ulna and a fractured nose.

In the season after making his major league debut with Kansas City, Dozier saw action in only 33 minor league games.

“I’m trying to forget 2017. That’s a year I’ve never experienced ever,” K.C.’s No. 8 prospect (Baseball America) said. “It was difficult to go through. Once I got healthy from one injury, I came out here and had to have wrist surgery. And then it was something else at the end of the year. It was frustrating. But that’s something out of my control. I work hard. I take care of my body. And after that, it’s not on me.”

Fully healthy now, Dozier is off to a strong start with Omaha this season. He carried a six-game hitting streak into Monday’s series finale at Nashville and is batting .306 heading into this week’s homestand, which begins with a four-game set with Memphis starting Tuesday evening at Werner Park.

Dozier began the regular season with a double and a home run in his first home game then really got things going on the road last week. He not only recorded at least one hit in six of seven outings in Tennessee, he also drew a walk in five of those games. His on-base percentage is a lofty .405.

“To get off with the double and the home run in the first at-bats to get his confidence going, I think was real big for him,” Storm Chasers manager Brian Poldberg said. “He knows what he needs to do, and he’s hungry to get it done. He knew he missed last year, and he’s come in hungry and he was working hard.”

Poldberg recalled Dozier hitting two bullets off the center field wall in the final spring training game of last year. He suffered the oblique strain in the at-bat that followed, and his 2017 season never got going.

But Dozier, Kansas City’s minor league player of the year in 2016, was in contention for a roster spot when the Royals opened spring training this year. Although he is primarily a third baseman, he has also seen time at first base and in right field, giving him the versatility to help out the big league club.

The late signings of Moustakas and first baseman Lucas Duda, however, gave the Royals starters at the corner infield spots. That meant Dozier was going back down to Omaha. But Kansas City General Manager Dayton Moore said Dozier and others still factor into the team’s future.

“The players that we signed, we didn’t sign to multiyear contracts. They’re not blocking anybody,” he said. “Players that are going to be crucial for our long-term success are going to continue to get at-bats.”

The 26-year-old Dozier took the free agent signings in stride, focusing solely on his 2018 season.

“I can only control the stuff that I can control. I play this game as hard as I can, and whatever happens at the end of the day will happen,” he said. “From what I’ve been told, I’ll be playing a lot of first, a lot of third, a lot of right. It’s something I’m used to. And I like it because it does help my chances of getting back up there. I’m looking forward to it.”

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Dozier was a shortstop in college and moved to third as a professional. Poldberg said he’s a natural there, but the other two positions have been a learn-as-you-go process.

“He knew when he was going good what he was doing and had all winter to prepare to come into spring training,” Poldberg said. “He was ready to go. Last year, we started outfield in right field and played some first base. He’s pretty much prepared for all those positions. Now, it’s getting enough reps at each one.”

Dozier’s pro career took off immediately, but he struggled at the plate in late 2014 and throughout 2015 while at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. He found his groove again in 2016, setting career highs with 23 home runs and 75 RBIs between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha .

Now that the injuries of 2017 are behind him, Dozier appears ready to return to 2016 form this summer.

“Baseball is ups and downs, and it’ll humble you for sure,” he said. “You can’t worry about your stats. You’ve just got to go out there and work as hard as you can. At the end of the day, the stats are going to be what they are. You can’t control that. You can’t think about that or you’ll be driving yourself crazy all year.”

Storm Chasers build four-run lead but lose to Nashville on walk-off wild pitch

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Omaha’s struggles continued Monday as the Storm Chasers gave up a four-run lead late in a 5-4 loss to Nashville.

With the game tied 4-4 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and runners on second and third, Omaha pitcher Kevin Lenik fired a wild pitch, allowing B.J. Boyd to score the winning run for Nashville (6-6).

The Chasers (2-9) have lost three straight games and seven of their past eight.

Omaha built a 4-0 lead before the Sounds made their rally. Omaha scored two runs in the first inning when Frank Schwindel hit a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded to score Billy Burns. Sounds first baseman Slade Heathcott then made a bad throw to third base that allowed Jack Lopez to score.

Omaha added two more runs in the top of the fifth. Humberto Arteaga walked, reached second base on a sacrifice bunt by Burns and scored on a single by Lopez.

Hunter Dozier scored on another Sounds error after Nashville shortstop Melvin Mercedes mishandled a grounder from Frank Schwindel.

The Sounds scored four runs in the bottom of the seventh to tie it.

Heathcott led off with a single and reached second on a throwing error by Omaha’s Eric Stout. Heathcott scored on a double from Josh Phegley, and Nick Martini and Jorge Mateo walked to load the bases.

B.J. Boyd then delivered a base-clearing, three-run double to tie the game 4-4.

Omaha starter Trevor Oaks gave up three hits with two strikeouts over six scoreless innings, but he didn’t factor into the decision.

The Chasers begin a seven-game homestand at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday against Memphis.

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