It feels like it was five years ago when the Royals traded Wade Davis for Jorge Soler, and yet, Soler has just over 650 plate appearances as a Royal. Due to both injuries and poor play, Soler has been worth 0.9 WAR as a Royal, meanwhile Wade Davis has been worth 2.3 between the Cubs and Rockies. He’s mostly been unable to put it together, he either starts hitting well and gets injured, or he’s uninjured and has hit modestly (mainly 2019).
The Royals haven’t committed to rebuilding and it’s not clear they would actually trade Soler, but that’s never stopped us from writing the following five words: what is his trade value?
You might look at Soler’s more traditional raw counting stats: 18 home runs and 49 RBI and think he’s among the best hitters in the league. He’s hitting .244/.300/.511 as well, and that slugging percentage is good for the 44th best in baseball. His .267 ISO is good for 20th in the league.
Jorge Soler has hit for power, we all know this. We’ve watched his home runs travel four zip codes in under 10 seconds.
However that’s mostly all he has done. Soler, for all his power, has also struck out 30% of the time, the seventh-most in the majors. He has not gotten on base, as his .300 OBP ranks 137th overall. The Royals have been using him at DH the past two months now that Nicky Lopez has moved Whit Merrifield to right field, meaning he has provided no defensive value. Even when he was playing in the field he wasn’t very good (career -29 DRS in the outfield). The same goes for his baserunning, he has provided basically nothing (7 career steals, -0.7 BsR).
There has been some chatter about Jorge Soler, despite around the top 20 in home runs, being replacement level, according to Wins Above Replacement (WAR). As always, I’m here to talk about advanced metrics. Let me posit two players:
Player A: 29 years old .222/.321/.499 41 home runs 94 RBI 32% K% 113 wRC+
Player B: 27 years old .244/.300/.511 37 home runs 101 RBI (both prorated to 600 PA) 30% K% 109 wRC+
You already know Player B is Jorge Soler, I posted his triple slash above. Player A is 2016 Chris Carter, a first baseman/designated hitter who finished tied for third in the league in home runs at age 29 and was non-tendered by the Brewers. Despite three years of club control left, the Brewers opted to let him go for nothing. Carter was left to test the free agent market and signed with the Yankees in February for $3.5 million. He lasted 208 plate appearances with New York and hasn’t played in the big leagues since (he’s in the Mexican League currently). He went from finishing among the league leaders in bombs to being out of baseball 200 plate appearances later.
Carter was worth 1 WAR that 2016 season, whereas Soler has been worth 0.6 (per FanGraphs) so far for the Royals. Baseball-Reference WAR has been less kind, pegging Soler for just 0.2 WAR (due to minor differences between FanGraphs and BRef’s inputs for WAR - mostly just defense). If Soler plays enough this season (always a concern with him) he should eclipse Carter’s 1-win just through the accrual of playing time (and assuming he isn’t god awful). Both players hit a ton of home runs but they provided effectively zero or negative value everywhere else, and even despite the long shots where only roughly 10% above league average hitters.
Now, perhaps the designated hitter run adjustment is too harsh. Currently over a full season a batter loses 17.5 runs if he plays 162 games at DH, equivalent to ~1.5 wins. But I think we can all agree that when compared to other players, designated hitters have a very big hill to climb against their field-playing peers.
Jorge Soler’s .300 OBP is the biggest problem in a league where the average OBP is 22 points higher (.322). The average DH is hitting .253/.335/.464, good for a 111 wRC+, right on where Soler is. So essentially, Soler is a league-average hitting DH.
Soler is right in the middle, being solidly green in only home runs and ISO, sandwiched between Khris Davis and Justin Smoak. Say what you want about WAR, but how do you move Soler markedly up this list? He’s last in K% amongst designated hitters and 3rd to last in on base percentage.
He’s just...not that valuable of a player because he doesn’t do much more than hit for power. That’s a tough sentence to write and you may be thinking “what do you mean he only hits for power?” I’m not saying power in meaningless, it isn’t, but you have to remember the current offensive environment we are in.
Ketel Marte has 20 home runs
Alex Bregman has 19
Brandon Lowe has 15
Tommy La Stella has 15
Brett Gardner has one fewer home run (11) right now than he had all of last season (12)
Jesse Winker never hit more than 16 home runs in the minors; he has 11 already
Home runs will always have value. They will always be the most valuable single play for a hitter, and I’ll take one every single time. But what we care about today is relative value, and historically, the value of a home run is near a low point
This is the third-most home run heavy season in the live ball era, spanning nearly 100 years now, which makes home runs cheap. Home run-only hitters, which Soler has been for the most part this year, are playing in the third-worst year for their skill.
Sometimes it is easier to be objective when you aren’t talking about the players on your favorite team, so let me ask it this way: what would you give up for a worse hitting/running Eddie Rosario or Mitch Haniger? Or the current Nick Castellanos (a DH masquerading as a right fielder) with a couple extra years of control?
Back to the question at hand - no, Soler isn’t replacement-level. We have explicit evidence of such: his 0.6 fWAR and 0.2 bWAR. While you could argue that 0.2 bWAR is essentially replacement level, his 0.6 fWAR is safe enough above.
Still, Soler wouldn’t return much in a trade. Teams will always hold his injury history against him and due to his defensive limitations, he can really only go to the 14 other American League teams, with only a handful of those teams in the chase. He’s also due around $2.3M this year and another $4.6M next year, and then whatever happens to his contract in 2021, likely the arbitration process. That’s not bust-the-bank worthy but Soler has barely been worth $4.6M in his entire Royals tenure combined.