The Royals probably won’t be making a big splash in free agency this off-season, but they will be looking to upgrade a team that finished tied with the seventh-worst record in baseball last year. The team seems likely to target players that fit into the rebuild that centers around a crop of young pitchers.
Outfielder Hunter Renfroe is fresh off a trip to the World Series with the Tampa Bay Rays, but was designated for assignment last week as the team was caught in a 40-man roster crunch. Although technically not a free agent yet (Wednesday update: Renfroe has cleared waivers and is now a free agent), he could be if no team trades for him or claims him off waivers. The 28-year old is still young enough to be in his prime, and although he came of a very disappointing 2020 season, he could be a perfect reclamation project for a team like the Royals.
Renfroe excelled in his junior season at Mississippi State and was considered a first round pick in the 2013 draft, with some mock drafts even attaching him to the Royals with the #8 pick, a pick they eventually used on Hunter Dozier. Renfroe instead with #13 to the Padres and was a consensus Top 100 prospect for several seasons as he put up solid power numbers in the minors, although with high strikeout rates. He debuted with the Padres in 2016, and hit .2312/.284/.467 with 26 home runs in 122 games in his rookie season of 2017.
He repeated his home run total in 2018 and was able to cut his strikeout rate from 29 percent to 24 percent. In 2019, he finished tied for 20th in the National League with 33 home runs, but his strikeout rate spiked back up to over 31 percent, the third-highest in the National League by anyone with at least 400 plate appearances.
What was interesting about Renfroe in 2019 was his defensive metrics. He had long been lauded for his strong arm in right, but had never looked particularly athletic tracking down fly balls. But in 2019, the metrics had him as one of the best defensive right fielders in baseball, topping the list for right fielders in Defensive Runs Above Average.
After the season, the Padres shipped Renfroe to the Rays with shortstop prospect Xavier Edwards and catcher Esteban Quiroz in exchange for outfielder Tommy Pham and infielder Jake Cronenworth. Cronenworth would end up surpassing expectations and becoming a Rookie of the Year candidate, but both Pham and Renfroe would be disappointing with their new teams. Renfroe would hit just .156/.252/.393 with eight home runs in 42 games, finishing below replacement level in WAR, according to Fangraphs.
With 1,589 major league plate appearances under his belt, we can say that Renfroe is what he is - a good power hitter who is going to strike out a lot with a below-average walk rate and a low batting average. His career line of .228/.290/.486 may not give the Royals the “on base” that they are looking for, but he would provide much-needed pop for a team that finished fourth-worst in home runs last year. His defense is still a question mark, but under the tutelage of Rusty Kuntz, he could improve his routes and jumps and give the Royals a solid arm in right.
Renfroe may also benefit from being in more of a platoon situation. He has been a lefty-masher in his career, hitting .258/.339/.573 against southpaws to just .216/.268/.449 against righties. In a lot of ways, he is very similar to a free agent outfielder getting a lot more attention - Joc Pederson - just from the other side of the plate. Combine the two of them - (Pederson is a career .238/.349/.501 hitter against righties) - and you’d have a heckuva hitter.
If the Royals were to sign Renfroe, they would still retain his rights through 2023. He is not like to command a large salary on the market, and this would be quite similar to when they brought in Maikel Franco last winter, a move that largely worked out. Whit Merrifield is likely to start in the outfield, but the rest of the positions are up in the air. Putting Renfroe in a mix with Edward Olivares and Franchy Cordero can solidify the lineup and allow them to still have flexibility to add Khalil Lee and Kyle Isbel in the future when they are ready.