Royals have critical arbitration decisions to make with Soler and Franco

It has been a quiet Winter thus far on the transactions front for the Kansas City Royals, though to be frank, it has been that way throughout the league. However, even though “hot stove” discussion will most likely get warmer once the baseball world enters the month of December, it will be interesting to see what direction Dayton Moore and the Royals will go this off-season, and if that “hot stove” chatter will heat up for the club leading up to Spring Training.

As of this moment, it seems unlikely that the Royals will make a big splash via trade or free agency, for even Moore has talked about the “depressed” trade market due to COVID and other teams’ financial concerns from a down economic year. Furthermore, with a payroll that ranked 26th in 2020, it is unlikely that the Royals will spend too much on free agency, especially with so many promising prospects (such as Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Khalil Lee, Kyle Isbel, and perhaps even Bobby Witt, Jr.) most likely making their debuts in the next year or two. Hence, it may be prudent of the Royals to save that payroll in the future to secure a homegrown star through an extension once they are eligible rather than dish out big money to a veteran free agent who may not move the needle all that much in the standings (Tom Wolfe of Fangraphs wrote today that the Royals could be a much improved team in 2021, but still may fall outside the playoff picture).

However, while the Royals may be building to be in the playoff pictures by 2022 or 2023, there still is a “win now” attitude that is permeating throughout the organization. Moore echoed that mindset in a recent interview with Alec Lewis in The Athletic:

“We expect to win next year,” Moore said. “What does that look like? Is it going to be enough wins to make the playoffs? We’ll find out. But our mindset is going to be to go out and win every single pitch, every inning, every game. That’s the only way we’re ever going to win another championship. You’ve got to expect to win in all aspects. And trust me, (manager) Mike Matheny and the coaching staff understand that completely.”

“‘We expect to win next year’: Royals GM Dayton Moore discusses budget, timeline” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic

And thus, if the Royals are focusing on trying to improve that 26-34 record from a year ago, then a lot of the focus this off-season for the Royals front office (at least at the Major League level) has to be on their arbitration-eligible players whose contracts will be negotiated this Winter. While the list does include first-time eligible players such as Brad Keller, Franchy Cordero, Jakob Junis, Hunter Dozier, and Adalberto Mondesi, the two biggest arbitration decisions for Moore this off-season will be designated hitter Jorge Soler and third baseman Maikel Franco. Both offensive-first players not only are in their finals seasons of arbitration, but they also would most likely command the most money out of the list of Royals arbitration-eligible players as well.

Therefore, Moore will have a difficult dilemma at his disposal: does he re-sign both players on one-year deals, or perhaps even more, even though it could cost a decent amount (well..decent amount for a small market team)? Or will Moore roll the dice, and perhaps let one or both walk, with the idea they could get similar production for cheaper (as well as short-term) through free agency, or even within their own system?

Let’s take a look at what Soler and Franco offered the Royals in terms of production in 2020, and what Royals fans could probably expect the Royals to do with both of them in 2021.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There is no question that Soler and Franco were two of the Royals’ most productive hitters in 2020, albeit they went about it in different ways. Of Royals hitters who had more than 100 plate appearances in 2020, Soler ranked 2nd in wRC+ (108) and Franco ranked 3rd (106). Furthermore, Soler and Franco tied for third on the team in home runs with each hitting eight in 2020 (though Soler was able to do it nearly 70 fewer plate appearances and 17 fewer games). Thus, when it came to Royals production, Soler and Franco were dependable hitters in the middle of the Royals lineup in 2020 even though Soler struggled with injury down the stretch.

Even though both Soler and Franco were dynamic hitters last year, they did so in completely different ways, as I had talked about before on this blog. Soler continued to be a strikeout machine in 2020, as his strikeout rate increased from 26.2 to 34.5, and his BB/K ratio decreased from 0.41 the past two season to 0.32. And thus, it’s not surprising that Soler went from a 136 wRC+ in 2019 to 108 in 2020. However, even though swinging and whiffing continued to be a Soler staple a season ago, nobody hit the ball harder in 2020, as evidenced in the Stacast data, especially in the chart below:

Baseball Savant-Jorge Soler

As Royals fans can see, Soler ranked in the 93rd percentile in exit velocity and hard hit percentage, and in the 99th percentile when it came to barreling baseball. Thus, while Soler certainly has his flaws as a hitter (that 4th and 5th percentile in K rate and whiff rate, respectively, stand out), and doesn’t carry much value either defensively (he’s pretty much a DH-only player at this point in his career), he definitely brings a skill set that would be highly valued by this Royals team in 2021.

While Franco may have hit the same amount of home runs as Soler in 2020 and was an RBI machine as well in the Royals lineup (he led the team with 60 RBI), they were far from the same kind of hitter at the plate in 2020. Franco was more free-swinging in 2020 than in his last season in Philly in 2019, as his BB/K ratio decreased from 0.59 to 0.42, and his contact rate also decreased from 79.9 to 76.4 percent from 2019 to 2020, respectively. However, the “hacking” approach worked for Franco, as he posted his best wRC+ since 2015, and his best WAR (1.3) since 2016 (1.7 and that was over 152 games). Thus, while Moore’s decision to sign Franco seemed to be a head-scratcher at first, the move ended up paying dividends for the Royals lineup last season.

That being said, when digging into Franco’s Statcast data, his future looks a little murkier, especially when comparing his percentile rankings to Soler’s.

Baseball Savant-Maikel Franco

While Soler still hit the ball hard despite meager traditional metrics (i.e. batting average, OPS), Franco seemed to outperform his percentile rankings. His exit velocity ranked in the 18th percentile, his hard hit rate ranked in the 46th percentile, and his barrel rate ranked in the 34th percentile. Granted, Soler is elite when it comes to barreling the ball, so comparing Franco to Soler may be a tad unfair. But Franco is expected to be a run-producing, middle-of-the-lineup hitter, and it’s tough to say with any confidence that those advanced metrics and rankings project that Franco can be that again over a full 162-game season in 2021.

Now, is that to say Franco will be worth cutting this off-season? Probably not, as he still could be pretty good, and maybe a full season could improve his plate discipline overall as well, which would mitigate some of those other metrics (his BB/K ratio dramatically improved over the second half of play). That being said, there most likely will be regression downward offensively for Franco in 2021 (much like there will be some expected progression upward for Soler). The main question will be how much regression can Royals fans expect from Franco, and will Franco still be worth his contract despite the expected regression?

Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

As of now, Cot’s contracts on their Royals contract spreadsheet is projecting a $9 million one-year extension and Franco to command $5.25 million on a one-year deal as well. Considering Soler and Franco were due $7.3 million and $3 million last year, respectively, and made less due to COVID abbreviating the season, those pay bumps are reasonable for 2021. Sure, would the Royals be slightly overpaying the market in both circumstances? Perhaps. However, a $2.7 and $2.25 million dollar raise from a year ago aren’t numbers that should outrage Royals nation, especially if they are just one-year extensions.

For many Royals fans, it is easy to focus on possible free agents to help boost this Royals lineup for 2021. I know I have been doing the same thing, looking at MLB Trade Rumors to see the options and free agents who could not just be affordable, but fit as well in the Royals lineup. However, while those fantasies are nice to think about, the reality is that it probably will be a tame off-season for Kansas City hot stove wise, and instead of focusing on players outside of the organization, Moore and the Royals most likely will be looking to see how they can improve within. Not only is it a less-expensive route, but it also can bode well for building future success as well.

And thus, that is why Soler and Franco are such key arbitration decisions this Winter for Moore. Yes, they may not be part of Kansas City’s long-term future, as they have limited defensive skills, and will be free agents after 2021, in which they will be 30 and 29, respectively, when they hit the open market. But Soler and Franco were key to the offense’s improvement in 2020, and if Soler is fully healthy, and if Franco can at least maintain what he did in 2020 in his second full season as a Royal, than perhaps the Royals could be closer to the “middle class of baseball” in 2021. A fully healthy lineup of Whit-Mondesi-Salvy-Soler-Dozier-Franco could do wonders at the top, and if Cordero can make gains and stay healthy, and if Nicky Lopez can at least get on-base at the bottom of the lineup, then well…the Royals actually could be a “better than average” lineup in 2021. It may not be enough to get them into the playoffs, but perhaps to 75-80 wins? That is more than a possibility if that 1-5 is clicking and healthy.

But in order for that to happen, the Royals need to bring back Soler and Franco. Even if 2021 is their last hurrah in Royals blue in Kansas City, this club needs their production and presence. Without one or even both hitters, it’s more than likely that this lineup is one of a 60-65 win team rather than 75-80 win one. Even if they do replace their absence with a free agent or two, I highly doubt that the newly acquired player will be able to match their possible production, especially considering the caliber of free agents Moore has acquired during his tenure as GM.

It shouldn’t be a hard decision for Moore and the Royals, but the decision to bring back Soler and Franco will probably go on longer than expected. They probably believe that they deserve extensions, but in this economy, both players would probably be better off taking whatever the Royals offer, which honestly may be in that Cot’s Contracts projection-range.

But if they are extended and come back to KC in 2021, expect the Royals lineup to continue to improve. And success offensively will further help this club make the kind of progression in the standings that this organization needs to give Royals fans confidence that lasting success is on the way.

Even though they are flawed hitters in different ways, this Royals lineup will need both of their bats to succeed in 2021. Because success in 2021 can hopefully breed for more lasting and concrete competitiveness in 2022 and beyond, especially once the young prospects are up and ready to contribute.

Let’s hope Soler and Franco are around next year to continue the gains of Moore’s “Process 2.0”.

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