Does it make sense for the Royals to trade Jorge Soler this off-season?

The Kansas City Royals made some progress this year, as they finished 26-34 and finished fourth place in the American League Central thanks to a late push at the end of the year (which pushed the Detroit Tigers to the basement, who were ahead of the Royals in the standings for most of the year). While the Royals did see three Central teams make the playoffs this year in the new format (though all three exited in the Wild Card rounds), there is some hope that 2021 could be another year of climbing in the standings, thanks to a bounce back season from Salvy, and promising performances from rookie pitchers Brady Singer and Kris Bubic. Furthermore, add in some more flexibility in the outfield with the retirement of Alex Gordon, and it seems like the Royals could be set up to finally see some real improvement after struggling to be competitive the past three seasons.

The Royals did improve offensively in some areas from 2019 to 2020. After ranking 27th in wOBA and wRC+ in 2019, according to Fangraphs, the Royals offense improved to 20th in wOBA and wRC+. However, the Royals were still plagued by an undisciplined free-swinging approach in 2020, as they ranked 27th in the league in walk rate as well as OBP, according to Fangraphs. This has prompted GM Dayton Moore to perhaps revamp their approach when it comes to looking to upgrading the lineup, as evidenced in the Tweet below:

Here is quote from the MLB Trade Rumors report which talks about Moore’s desire to find hitters who can improve the Royals’ lineup as a whole to get on base better:

The trade of Trevor Rosenthal and potential departure of Greg Holland creates a need to “supplement” the bullpen, per the GM, but Moore spoke more directly of a need to upgrade multiple spots in the batting order.

“We definitely need more on-base guys,” Moore said. “We need more quality [at-bats] from probably two other spots in that lineup.”

“Moore: Royals Need To Improve OBP, Supplement Bullpen” by MLB Trade Rumors; October 1st

The Royals seem to have a full-backing from owner John Sherman in terms of spending money on their farm system and player development. Alec Lewis of the Athletic reported this statistic below about involvement in the Fall instructional league in Kansas City and instructional camp for lower level prospects in Arizona, which shows the Royals commitment to continue to build and grow one of the stronger farm systems in all of baseball:

That being said, while Sherman seems committed to backing Moore’s vision on creating a farm system that is continuing to grow and surge (and perhaps be one again that was once the envy of baseball back in 2011), it is yet to be determined if Sherman is as open with the checkbook when it comes to acquiring free agents.

Last winter, Maikel Franco was the only major free agent signing, and he only came at the cost of around $3 million. Furthermore, Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal, other free agent signings, came on Minor League deals before making the team out of camp. And thus, it seems likely that Sherman and Moore will probably be conservative in the free agent market again, much like they were in the Winter of 2019, in order to ensure that most of their spending is directed toward the farm system and player development.

However, while free agents signings (especially ones beyond a year) may be less likely under this new regime for now (that could change of course if the Royals become more competitive in a year or two), that may not be the case with the trade market. Since Sherman has taken over, Moore has been active in terms of trading established players for more controllable assets who were not as proven, but could provide more upside down the road. The Royals acquired Francy Cordero and Ronald Bolanos for Tim Hill prior to the start of the 2020 season. They traded Brett Phillips to Tampa Bay for utility player Lucius Fox. And at the deadline, they flipped Trevor Rosenthal for Edward Olivares and a player to be named later.

Hence, under Sherman, Moore has not hesitated to trade players to gain more assets, and it seems likely that this trend will continue this Winter.

And the most likely trade candidate this off-season may be designated hitter Jorge Soler.

#SolerPower became a popular trend in a dark season in 2019. Soler smashed the Royals home run record, as he hit 48 dingers, surpassing Mike Moustakas’ record of 38, which he set in 2017. Furthermore, the Cuban slugger, who was acquired from the Cubs for closer Wade Davis prior to 2017, not only put up a sensational 136 wRC+ and triple slash of .265/.354/.569 in 2019, but he played in all 162 games and accumulated 679 plate appearances, both career highs. Considering injuries have plagued Soler’s career for so long, the fact that he put up a fully healthy season was a cause for celebration among Royals fans and management.

Unfortunately, Soler’s injury issues prior to 2019 seemed to dog him again in 2020. He only played in 43 games and accumulated 174 plate appearances, and reports surfaced that he was playing through oblique issues throughout most of the season. That certainly showed in his slash and wRC+, as it regressed to .228/.326/.443 and 108 (which was not only down from 2019 but 2018 as well, as he posted a 123 wRC+ that year in 61 games before missing the remainder of the year due to a broken toe). A big issue for Soler was an increase in strikeouts, for even though Soler maintained his walk rate from 2019 (which was 10.9 percent), his strikeout rate increased from 26.2 percent in 2019 to 34.5 percent in 2020. A strikeout rate in the mid-20’s can be tolerated with a plus-10 walk rate. But a near 35 percent rate may be too much of a concern, and may not produce enough consistent production, which proved to be the case for Soler this year.

What makes Soler’s case so interesting is that he will be entering his last year of arbitration this winter, as he will become a free agent after the 2021 season. Even though Moore is known for buying out arbitration years, he opted to only sign Soler to a one-year extension last winter, a peculiar move considering Soler’s breakout a year ago. After a down year, it seems likely that Moore probably won’t go beyond one year in terms of an extension for Soler, with the idea that they will need to see more in 2021 to determine if he indeed can have a long-term future as the Royals’ designated hitter.

That being said, Soler will be 29 in 2021, has a history of injury issues, and once again showed that he really cannot play the outfield full-time defensively (he posted a minus-8.1 UZR/150, the seventh-straight season he has posted a negative metric according to this defensive metric). Considering a glut of outfielders both on the 40-man and in the upper minors, as well as the potential need to move Hunter Dozier off of first base should Nick Pratto make gains in 2021, it may be better for the Royals to keep the DH position open in 2022 and beyond rather than keep Soler permanently in the spot.

Furthermore, with the DH possibly expanding to the National League with the new CBA agreement (the current is set to expire in 2021), it is possible that Soler could have more value on the open market after the 2021 season. Even if the Royals keep Soler for one more season and he replicates his 2019 production, it seems unlikely that the Royals, with so much invested in the farm system, will want to offer a 3-4 year contract in the 30-40 million range, which he could command as a free agent from teams more willing to spend for offensive production.

And thus, it may be better for the Royals to trade Soler now and get something decent in return (such as a couple of prospects) rather than wait it out, and only get a compensatory pick in the draft instead. Josh Keiser of Royals Review predicted a prospect package from Oakland in a possible trade for Soler, and while I’m not sure about the exact player package (he predicted Moore would acquire Sheldon Neuse and Luis Barrera, who both fit the bill of prospect profiles that Moore has acquired recently), I agree with the mindset that the Moore may be more active in looking to deal Soler this off-season than in seasons past.

This trade possibility is a tough one to stomach since Soler has been one of my favorite Royals hitters to watch over the past two seasons. However, this was a painful season to witness as he struggled through injury, and it seems likely that 2019 may have been the peak of what Royals fans may see from him as a Royal. Over a full 162 games season, he’ll probably be a 25-30 home run hitter, walk at a decent rate, and put up some crazy exit velocity numbers. However, he lacks defensive value, struggles with injury, and could see his numbers decline dramatically if his strikeout rate continues to hover in the 30 percent range. And thus, it would be best for the Royals to entertain offers now rather than wait it out and either get nothing in return should he leave for free agency, or not be able to get much should his numbers stagnate or worse yet, regress in 2021.

This much is certain: Sherman and the ownership group believe in Moore’s strategy to win through the farm system in 2021 and beyond. They already saw some fruits of it with Singer and Bubic’s sterling performances in 2020, which should give Royals fans hope for Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar in 2021. However, the Royals won’t have the kind of “MLB roster” payroll freedom like other Central teams, who can spend more on free agents and veteran talents because they are in a more competitive state. Does that mean that the Royals will spend nothing on free agents or veterans? No, they probably will acquire 2-3 this off-season before Spring Training, albeit on very inexpensive deals. However, they will probably be more cognizant of which players merit long-term deals, and which ones may be worth trading, especially while their value is high.

After all, Soler is not the only player whom the Royals will have to make a decision on in terms of an extension. Dozier, Adalberto Mondesi, and even Brad Keller will be entering arbitration this Winter, and all three players are probably seen as more of a long-term priority than Soler. As a small-market franchise, the Royals have to make those tough decisions, even if it may add a possible question mark to the Royals lineup in the short-term.

Who knows what Moore will exactly do with Soler this off-season…

But whether it’s this year or next, it seems highly likely that Soler will be parting ways from Kansas City at some point in the future.

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