The Royals announced Monday that infielder Hunter Dozier, who’s playing out the third season of a four-year contract worth a guaranteed $25MM, has been designated for assignment. His spot on the active roster will go to infielder Nicky Lopez, who is returning from the 10-day injured list.
Dozier, 31, was the No. 8 overall selection in the 2013 draft, though that was generally regarded as an underslot deal that allowed them to go over slot to sign lefty Sean Manaea 26 picks later. Dozier was still a well-regarded prospect himself, but he struggled considerably in his first few pro seasons before a breakout showing between Double-A and Triple-A in 2016. He struggled in his first two big league looks in 2016 and 2018 but looked to have a breakout campaign in 2019, when he slashed .279/.348/.522 with a career-high 26 home runs.
Of course, as is commonly known at this point, that 2019 season saw a host of odd offensive breakouts around the league as MLB worked with a juiced baseball both in the big leagues and in Triple-A. A comical 58 players belted 30 or more home runs that season, and were it not for a three-week stay on the injured list, Dozier might very well have been a 59th.
The 2020 season saw Dozier take a step back, but his .228/.344/.392 batting line still clocked in right around league-average, per metrics like wRC+ and OPS+, after weighting for his pitcher-friendly home park and a reduced leaguewide run-scoring environment. On the whole, Dozier batted .267/.347/.492 with 32 home runs in 772 plate appearances from 2019-20 — showing the Royals enough that they felt comfortable making that four-year extension offer prior to the 2021 season.
Things went south almost immediately, and Dozier has batted just .222/.286/.384 with a 27.2% strikeout rate in 1134 plate appearances since putting pen to paper on that contract. He’s oscillated between first base, third base and right field without drawing positive defensive grades at any of the three spots. This year’s struggles have been particularly pronounced, as Dozier has limped to a .183/.253/.305 slash with a career-worst 31.9% strikeout rate in 91 trips to the plate.
The Royals will have a week to trade Dozier, pass him through waivers or release him. Given that he’s being paid $7.25MM this season and is owed both a $9MM salary in 2024 and a $1MM buyout on a 2025 club option, there’s no way he’d be claimed on waivers. The Royals could perhaps try to engineer a swap that sends Dozier elsewhere in exchange for another bad contract, though they’ve presumably looked into such scenarios (or trade scenarios where they pay the bulk of the contract) without striking up a deal.
Even if Dozier goes unclaimed on outright waivers, he has more than five years of MLB service time, meaning he could reject an outright assignment, elect free agency and still retain the remainder of his salary. It’s most common for players in similar situations to this one to wind up simply being released. One way or another, it’s likely that today’s DFA will spell the end of Dozier’s time with the Royals organization. If he ultimately does end up becoming a free agent, he’d be able to sign with any of the 29 other teams, who’d only owe him the prorated league minimum for any time spent on the big league roster/injured list. That amount would be subtracted from what the Royals owe Dozier, but they’ll remain on the hook for the vast majority of his contract regardless.
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