The deadline to tender or non-tender arbitration-eligible players is 7 p.m. CT on Wednesday, and the Royals have eight players to make decisions on. Five players seem like sure things to be tendered contracts - Brad Keller, Hunter Dozier, Adalberto Mondesi, Franchy Cordero, and Jesse Hahn. Slugger Jorge Soler seems very likely to be tendered, although his high price and limited defensive abilities make it at least a question, and Jakob Junis seems pretty likely to be tendered a contract despite an underwhelming season.
That leaves third baseman Maikel Franco, who is in his last year of arbitration before becoming eligible for free agency next year. The 28-year old was a non-tender casualty last winter, set loose by the Phillies after a .234/.297/.409 season, with the Royals scooping him up on a one-year deal. He responded by putting up solid numbers, appearing in all 60 games with a line of .278/.321/.457 and eight home runs. His 16 doubles were good enough for third in the American League, and he was the sixth-most valuable third baseman in all of baseball last year, according to Fangraphs. So why would the Royals let him go?
“It’s likely that we move on from certain players because their financial expectation doesn’t align with what we can do in other areas based on this market,” Moore said. “So we’re looking at that. I don’t know how it will unfold, but we’re looking at different things.”
It is a bit difficult to estimate how an arbitrator may factor in statistics from a shortened season, but according to estimates from MLB Trade Rumors, Franco is likely to get a deal worth between $4.5 and $8 million. That could be a significant raise from his $2.95 million full-season salary (that was reduced to just over $1 million in the shortened season).
While the Royals don’t seem to following the penny-pinching tactics other teams seem to be taking this off-season, they do have to recognize the changing nature of the market. Paying $8 million for a third baseman that has been anywhere from slightly below replacement level in his career to a 1.5 WAR player may not be the best use of resources if the market is deflated.
The third base free agent market is very thin this year, so there may not be obvious upgrades available. Justin Turner is the best available, but he will likely be out of Dayton Moore’s preferred price range. Marwin Gonzalez is capable of playing third base, but it is not clear he’d be appreciably cheaper and/or better than Franco.
But perhaps the Royals turn to free agent Tommy La Stella. Moore has said this off-season that the team needs “more on-base guys”, and La Stella’s career .349 on-base percentage and 9.6 percent walk rate would fit that need. La Stella has positional flexibility - a trait the Royals have loved in the past - and has some experience at third. He’ll be 32 in January, perhaps an odd fit for a rebuilding club, but if the Royals are looking for a short-term stop gap before Bobby Witt, Jr. is ready, he could fit the bill on a two-year deal.
The Royals could also decide to fill the position internally, turning to Kelvin Gutierrez. Injuries have cost Gutierrez a shot to show what he can do, and he has appeared in just 24 games in the past two seasons for the Royals. The upside isn’t very high for Gutierrez, but reports have him as a solid defender with some modest power. At the very least, he would make the league minimum and allow the Royals to spend more on perhaps an outfield bat. If you’re going to have a short-term solution, why pay more than you have to? And who knows, maybe Gutierrez turns into something useful.
And of course, the Royals could always non-tender Franco and bring him back on a deal more on their terms. There likely aren’t many teams willing to spend much on free agents, particularly ones with limited value like Franco.
At this point in his career you know what you will get out of Maikel Franco - a low batting average, good power, low strikeout rate for a power guy, and below-average defense. He isn’t part of the future. But he was also a fairly solid bat last year for a team that doesn’t have many solid bats. The Royals will have to evaluate their options and decide what kind of ballclub they want to have in 2021.
Should the Royals non-tender Maikel Franco?
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