Brandon Moss is bad. Really bad. Among players with 170 plate appearances, only three hitters have a lower batting average, and one - Kyle Schwarber - is now in the minor leagues. Moss can draw some walks, but he still has the eighth-worst on-base percentage in baseball.
While he has been a streaky hitter in his career, he is not getting better. His June has been his worst month yet, with a line of just .163/.250/.186, even as he has seen his playing time get cut, allowing him to face only right-handed pitchers. Brandon Moss has not hit a home run since May 26 - he has just one extra-base hit since then. Heck, he has just six hits since then. He has struck out 34% of the time, and according to Fangraphs, he is the 3rd-least valuable player in the American League, by WAR. Last night against Detroit, he had perhaps the single-worst at-bat I have ever seen by a Major League hitter.
So you get it, Brandon Moss has been bad. He is a big reason why Royals designated hitters collectively have the third-worst OPS in the American League. Seemingly anyone could be an upgrade over him. And fortunately for the Royals, they have anyone - Jorge Soler.
Jorge Soler had an inauspicious start to his Royals career. He had a dreadful spring training, then began the year on the disabled list with an oblique injury. After 65 uninspiring plate appearances with the Royals in which he hit .164/.292/.273, he was demoted to the minors. In Omaha, he has absolutely destroyed the baseball, hitting .324/.453/.667 with 11 home runs in 31 games.
So why isn’t he up in the big leagues taking DH at-bats away from Brandon Moss?
There isn’t a roster spot for him
Right now the Royals are carrying 13 pitchers because Ned Yost loves him some relievers. Don’t expect that to change either, since the Royals have a doubleheader on Saturday and may need those relief arms. That leaves them with a very short bench of Drew Butera, Cheslor Cuthbert, and Ramon Torres. Cuthbert can’t be sent down without exposing him to waivers, and sending Torres leaves the Royals without a true reserve middle infielder.
Ah, but what if Soler just replaces Brandon Moss? Well, it’s not quite that simple. Moss can’t be sent to the minors without his permission, which, as a veteran, he might be reluctant to do. He could refuse and become a free agent, but still receive the money owed to him by the Royals.
The Royals could outright release him, but they still owe him about $10 million on his deal for his salary this year, next year, and his buyout for 2019. They have eaten money before - they just released Chris Young despite owing him about $4.3 million. Most notably, they ate about $14.5 million when they let Omar Infante go last summer. But this has been a team that has been rather reluctant to eat money, and Moss is in just the third month of a two-year contract.
Moss is a sunk cost, so the Royals may be fooling themselves into thinking they can get “value” for his deal. But they may think that with Moss’s track record and his penchant for streakiness, he is due to come around any moment now. It was just last year that many fans were calling for the Royals to release Kendrys Morales in May, only to see him go on a tear. Well it is almost July for Moss. The clock is ticking.
Service time considerations?
One possible factor with Soler is that if the Royals keep him down for a few more weeks, that could push back his service time enough that he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2021 season, rather than after the 2020 season, giving the Royals an extra year of control. Soler has a rather unique contract, a nine-year deal he signed back in 2012 with the Cubs. He can opt-out of his guaranteed money and go into the arbitration system, which, if he hits his potential, could be far more lucrative.
However opting out wouldn’t necessarily make him a free agent when his contract expires in 2020. He would still need to reach six years of service time, which, if he stays in Omaha through July, he would not be on pace to hit that mark by the end of 2020. Some have speculated he may have an opt-out into free agency negotiated in his deal like Yoenis Cespedes and many Japanese free agent players do. We don’t know if that is the case with Soler.
However it seems very unlikely the Royals would try to game service time with Soler, as it has run very contrary to how they have operated in the past. They had Alex Gordon on the Opening Day roster in 2007, rather than call him up later to game an extra year. They brought up Eric Hosmer before the Super-Two arbitration deadline, which potentially cost them millions in arbitration. Those were in years in which the team wasn’t even contending. To think Dayton Moore would fail to call up a bat he thought could help the team in a contending year in order to game service time would be a severe misreading of the man.
So what’s next?
We could potentially see Brandon Moss make a phantom visit to the disabled list with a vague medical malady, giving him time to clear his head and allow Soler a chance to help this club. Perhaps after this weekend’s doubleheader, the Royals go back down to 12 pitchers and bring Soler up to get most of the at-bats at designated hitter.
Sure, Jorge Soler is not necessarily a panacea - it was not that long ago that many Royals fans thought he was a bum for his slow start. But he had just 65 plate appearances in the big leagues this year, a pretty small sample. For comparison’s sake, Eric Hosmer also struggled to start the year, hitting .193/.270/.263 in his first 63 plate appearances and he turned it around very nicely.
Brandon Moss seems like a pretty nice guy, and I liked the signing at the time, thinking Moss could provide much needed power and plate discipline to a team that needed it. But at some point you have to admit the plan didn’t work and cut your losses. If the Royals really want to contend this year, they have to field the best possible lineup, and it is looking more and more like that includes Jorge Soler and not Brandon Moss.