Which arbitration-eligible players should the Royals keep for 2020?

Hat tip to Max Rieper of Royals Review and their piece on identifying MLB Trade Rumors’ release of salary estimates for arbitration-eligible Royals this off-season. With new owner John Sherman most likely looking to make a splash in his first off-season, it will be interesting to see which player on the Royals’ 40 man roster will be worth signing or going to arbitration over, and which ones may be non-tendered, a casualty of the Royals’ rebuilding process as the club tries to become more competitive again.

Baseball’s arbitration process is an interesting one as it can spur all kinds of mixed feelings on both ends. For those who aren’t familiar, arbitration is basically baseball’s version of restricted free agency: they are eligible for a bigger pay day, but the club retains exclusive rights to the club. Most clubs will sign a player to some kind of extension, usually to buy out their remaining arbitration years, so they don’t have to go see an arbitrator and debate how much money to pay a player every year. Sometimes, a team and a player will go to arbitration, which mostly happens in the case of players whose futures are a bit suspect, but still deserve a considerable raise. In my lifetime, Tim Lincecum of the Giants was the biggest example when he entered arbitration in 2009, as he won two Cy Youngs, but the Giants were hesitant to signing him to a long extension, as there were question marks about velocity dips as well as how his pitching motion would affect his body as he aged.

The last option a team could do with a player in arbitration is non-tender him, which is pretty much releasing a player. The player goes on the open market, where teams can sign him. However, if a player is non-tendered, it is unlikely they will get a deal that will match the value they would receive in arbitration, or get a deal at all. If a club non-tenders a player, the future is not bright for that particular player.

MLB Trade Rumors list five players eligible for arbitration: pitchers Jacob Barnes, Jesse Hahn, and Mike Montgomery; third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert; and designated hitter/”outfielder” (put it in quotes because he really should just be a DH at this point…except for interleague games on the road) Jorge Soler, who will opt out of his current deal to go into arbitration.

Let’s take a look at each of the five players and determine whether the Royals should sign them to an extension (to avoid arbitration), go to arbitration, or non-tender them.

Jacob Barnes, RHP (Reliever)

2019 stats with Royals: 15 appearances, 13 IP, 8.31 ERA, 1.92 WHIP, 8.21 FIP, 0.91 K/BB ratio, -0.4 WAR. Projected MLBTR salary: $800,000.

The 2019 Royals bullpen was actually one of the stronger aspects of the Royals club overall in the second half of 2019, as I alluded to in a post on this blog. Tim Hill became a solid LOOGY set up man, Kevin McCarthy turned into a poor man’s Zack Britton (i.e. groundball specialist), and Scott Barlow turned it around to become a valuable set up man for Ian Kennedy, who became one of the more underrated closers in the second half last year. Unlike the rotation, where there are a lot of question marks when it comes to who the Royals depend on in 2020, the bullpen actually has a solid foundation going into Spring Training next year.

The only issue for the bullpen right now is for Dayton Moore to figure out how to build depth, which is not an exact art. In comes Barnes, who was waived by the Brewers this season, and appeared in 15 games during the stretch run of 2019. Barnes has over two years of big league service time, with his strongest season coming in 2017, where he appeared in 73 games, posted an ERA of 4.00 and a K/BB ratio of 2.42 over 72 innings of work in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, that has been the high point for Barnes, as he struggled with command (2.04 K/BB ratio; 1.52 WHIP) in 2018 despite a solid ERA (3.33) before bottoming out in 2019 with Milwaukee (6.86 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, 2.00 K/BB ratio) as well as Kansas City.

It would be interesting to see what Barnes could do in KC over a larger sample. He throws hard (he averages 94 MPH to Pitch Info), and his cutter has had success in the past in Milwaukee. However, considering he will turn 30 years old in 2020, will cost almost 800 K to keep, and his future outlook is a middle-reliever at best, it’s unlikely Moore and the Royals will bring back the right hander, especially after he demonstrated disastrous command in his tenure with the Royals (after all, a K/BB ratio under one IS BAD).

What the Royals should do with Barnes: Non-tender him. Maybe bring him back as a Spring Training non-roster invitee.

Jesse Hahn, RHP (Reliever)

2019 stats with Royals: 6 appearances, 4.2 IP, 13.50 ERA, 2.79 WHIP, 6.86 FIP, 1.17 K/BB ratio, -0.1 WAR. Projected MLBTR salary: $900,000.

The Royals struck gold with Kennedy, who looked done as a starter, moved to the bullpen and ended up being a lock down closer for the Blue and White, especially in the second half. Now, the Royals and the Kauffman faithful are hoping that Moore can get lucky with a failed starter moving to the bullpen twice, with Hahn hopefully being the second example.

Unfortunately, Hahn has struggled to stay healthy, which is a big reason he moved from the rotation to the pen. He did not pitch at all at the big league level in 2018, and this year, he only pitched 4.2 innings as he recovered from major arm surgery this season. At one point, it appeared that his baseball career may have been over, but he was able to get some innings in and flash some potential while in Kansas City.

Now the results weren’t great: a 13.50 ERA, 2.79 WHIP and BB/9 of 11.57 demonstrate that. But he has some pop on his fastball, as he averaged 95.1 MPH, which would be almost 2 MPH higher than what he threw in 2017. Even though he struggled when I saw him in person against the Braves, it was obvious that his stuff was back…it was just his command that needed some work.

Like Barnes, Hahn isn’t exactly young, as Hahn is already 30, and is scheduled to make nearly 100 K more in arbitration in comparison to Barnes. However, Hahn has proven that he can still make guys swing and miss (13.5 K/9, 12.6 swinging strike percentage), and I am curious to see what he could do with a full and healthy Spring Training under his belt. With Kennedy, Barlow and Hill most likely back, there won’t be much pressure on Hahn initially, which will allow him to develop his command again in low leverage situations, which could produce benefits in the second half of 2020, especially if the Royals look to trade Kennedy around that time.

Who knows whether Hahn will become a lock-down late innings reliever like Kennedy. However, Hahn is worth taking a flier on, especially now that he is healthy for the first time in over two seasons.

What the Royals should do with Hahn: sign him in arbitration to a one-year, $1 million deal.

Mike Montgomery, LHP (Starter/Reliever)

2019 stats with Royals: 13 appearances, 64 IP, 4.64 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 5.52 FIP, 2.43 K/BB ratio, 0.3 WAR. Projected MLBTR salary: $2.9 million.

A former first round draft pick and heralded prospect in the Royals system, Monty made his return to Kansas City in the Martin Maldonado trade with the Cubs. In Chicago, Montgomery made his money as a middle-innings reliever and emergency starter, but with a dire need for the depth in the rotation, the Royals converted Montgomery to the rotation full time.

The results were mixed for Monty in his return to the City of Fountains. He made 13 appearances and pitched 64 innings, but he got hit a lot (11 H/9 rate), and his FIP suggests that he got lucky often over his 64 inning body of work. Monty did make more batters swing and miss more in KC than in Chicago last season (9.5 to 8.4 percent with the Cubs), but it seemed like Montgomery tailed off toward the end of the year, not a good sign considering 13 starts isn’t exactly substantial. If Montgomery wants to be in the rotation full time in 2020, he needs to show that he can be more consistent over the course of the full season, which he has struggled to do in his career.

At 30 years old, it may be easy to think that the Royals may skip on bringing Montgomery back, especially with so many young phenoms looming in the Minors. However, it’s unlikely that Kansas City will promote any of those phenoms (Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, etc.) by Opening Day, and there are questions whether or not Danny Duffy will be in the rotation in 2020. It will be interesting to see if Monty will last in the rotation for the full 2020 campaign, but for now, it’s likely that Moore will bring back Monty for at least one more year, to keep the seat warm at the very least for the young phenoms who likely will see a spot in the KC rotation at some point in 2020.

I would not expect a long-term extension for the 6’5 lefty, but a one-year deal at the arbitration price seems more than fair for both parties involved: the Royals get insurance in the rotation, and Monty gets one more shot to prove that he can be a full-time Major League starter.

What the Royals should do with Montgomery: sign him in arbitration to a one-year, $3 million deal.

Cheslor Cuthbert, 3B/1B

2019 stats with Royals: 87 games, 330 plate appearances, .246 average, .294 OBP, .379 slugging, .673 OPS, 9 HR, 40 RBI, -0.8 WAR. Projected MLBTR salary: $1.8 million.

I have always been a big fan of Cuthbert. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s one of a small number of players who hail from Nicaragua. Maybe it’s because he’s tantalized often in the minors, and I always felt he was blocked by Mike Moustakas and Hunter Dozier, which prevented him from getting a fair shot. Maybe it is due to him performing well in games I have attended in person at the K and he seems like a good dude.

However, it seems like the writing is on the wall for Cuthbert in Kansas City this off-season.

Despite a solid start after being called up from Omaha to replace an injured Doz (he posted a .288/.315/.432 slash in the first half), Cuthbert nose-dived in the second half, thanks to an August which saw him post a .188 average and .447 OPS over 85 plate appearances. There were times where Cuthbert was hitting the ball well, but his free-swinging approach, lack of consistent pop, and inability to fit in at either corner position in the field, seem to make him an expendable commodity at this point.

It’s likely Cuthbert will not be on the Royals Spring Training roster in 2020, or if he is, it’s as a non-roster invitee, like a season ago, where the Royals released him from the 40-man roster after the 2018 season. It would be nice to see Cuthbert prove the naysayers wrong like he did in the first half of 2019. When Cuthbert was playing well, his story and personality was one of the more enjoyable ones to cheer for last year.

However, 1,160 career plate appearances and a career wRC+ of 80, it’s time to face facts: Cuthbert is what he is, and that’s a sub-replacement level player (maybe replacement-level potential at best). And with other options in the minors (Kelvin Gutierrez being the most glaring example), it would be better for both Cuthbert and the Royals to part ways this Winter…again.

And this time for good.

What the Royals should do with Cuthbert: non-tender him. Probably let him try to earn a spot with a new club in Spring Training.

Jorge Soler, OF/DH

2019 stats with Royals: 162 games, 679 plate appearances, .265 average, ..354 OBP, .569 slugging, .922 OPS, 48 HR, 117 RBI, 3.6 WAR. Projected MLBTR salary: $11.2 million.

Soler is in an interesting position this off-season as he is technically under contract for about one more year at $4.667 million. However, Soler has an opt-out deal in his contract where he can file for arbitration this year in the last year of his deal before he becomes a free agent after 2020. Considering he set the Royals single-season home run record this year, and finished as the American League leader in home runs, it is almost a foregone conclusion that Soler will make more in arbitration this off-season than $4.667 million.

So with Soler likely opting out, the Royals have an interesting dilemma on their hands: do they go to arbitration, pay him around $11-12 million for 2020 and let him test the waters in free agency after the 2020 season? Or does Moore try to work out some kind of extension to keep Soler and #SolerPower in KC for at least a little bit longer?

There’s no question that Soler holds his own as a hitter, and his skills improved in nearly every category from 2018 to 2019. But not only did he grow as a hitter from last year (where he was injured most of the year) to this season, but he also showed considerable improvement in the second half of 2019. In 374 plate appearances in the first half, Soler struck out a 108 times and walked only 28 times. In 305 plate appearances in the second half, Soler struck out only 70 times and increased his walk total to 45. Thus it’s no surprise that Soler improved his slash (.240/.307/.497 to .299/.411/.665 in the second half) as well as OPS (.805 to 1.076) after the All-Star break.

Thus, while Royals fans may think Soler is good now at the plate, it’s possible that he may be even better in 2020 now that he’s developed his batting eye and discipline at the plate. In the second half, Soler was spitting and laying off balls out of the zone he would have swung at either in the second half or in previous seasons. That approach brings hope to Royals fans that Soler is not just a flash in the pan and could be a dependable slugger for quite some time.

Of course, the big issue for Soler is defense, as it seems at this point, he’ll never be good enough to be a regular outfielder for the Royals and that he should be a DH-only option from here-on-out. However, that’s not a bad thing. Nelson Cruz for the Twins has proven that a DH only hitter can have a positive impact on a club, and it’s easy to see Soler embracing that “Cruz-like” role with the Royals next season and maybe beyond.

While arbitration may be the easiest route, Moore should sign Soler to an extension this off-season, as the Royals would benefit from Soler’s presence long term after all he has done this season. Cruz is making about $14 million per, and a 3-year, $14-16 million per season ($42-48 million total) would be a fair deal to Soler without breaking the bank for Sherman and the Royals ownership group. Furthermore, it’s low risk, as a three-year deal is hardly to kind of commitment that will put the Royals in financial trouble should Soler fail to live up to the 2019 hype.

There may be a fair share of Soler doubters, but the Royals should invest in the Cuban slugger for at least a few more years. Not only will he solidify the lineup, but he will continue to bring excitement to the ballpark each and every game, and as a DH, he will be able to stay in the lineup, something he has struggle to do in the past.

No question, Royals fans. Expect more #SolerPower in 2020.

What the Royals should do with Soler: Sign him to a three-year, $42-48 million extension.

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