Is Hunter Renfroe a possible Royals off-season target?

MLB Hot Stove season can be a dark, black hole at times. Just when I was ready to sit down and write a post about Billy Butler’ polarizing, but interesting tenure as a Kansas City Royal, this nugget came across my Twitter timeline this afternoon from Royals Review:

And thus, I went from my mind lingering in the past to being brought squarely to the present and future. God damn the internet and Twitter.

Now that being said, I am NOT going to talk about Jay Bruce being a fit on the Kansas City Royals. However, a lot of the free agency buzz this off-season for the Royals has focused on free agent outfield targets, as the retirement of Alex Gordon, and the move of Hunter Dozier to first base, has left at least two open starting outfield positions available for Royals outfielders to battle over come Spring Training.

So far this offseason, Royals fans (including myself) have focused on bigger names such as Jackie Bradley, Jr., Jurickson Profar, and even Robbie Grossman (not a big name, but should be courted by a decent amount of teams this off-season). However, the multitude of moves others clubs made last Friday in order to protect players in their organization from the Rule 5 Draft showcased some interesting players who were designated for assignment from their clubs.

And one of the most interesting names to be designated for assignment was outfielder Hunter Renfroe, a former first round pick and top prospect in the San Diego Padres system who could be a potential fit in the Royals outfield, should Dayton Moore want to pursue him.

Photo Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

As mentioned before on this blog, the priority for Moore and the Royals this off-season may be to upgrade their lineup, with the goal to find a player who will improve the on-base percentage of the Royals. While the Royals did show some pop the past couple of seasons, getting on-base has been a different story. From 2019-2020, the Royals have ranked 28th in baseball in on-base percentage, according to Fangraphs, with only the Marlins and the Tigers being worse. And thus, if the Royals want to improve their offense in 2021, they will need a hitter to mitigate the free-swinging and low-walk tendencies of other batters in the lineup such as Adalberto Mondesi, Salvador Perez, and Maikel Franco, to name a few.

Renfroe, a former Padres first round pick out of Mississippi State, does offer some upside in terms of walks and power, which could boost the Royals lineup, especially in the 6th or 7th spot. Granted, Renfroe did struggle in the move from San Diego to Tampa Bay in 2020, as he only posted a slash of .156/.252/.393 and a wRC+ of 76 in 42 games and 139 plate appearances with the Rays. However, he did post a walk rate of 10.1 percent this year, and he also has a career ISO of .257, which has been boosted by him hitting 26 home runs or more from 2017-2019 in San Diego. Considering Petco Park profiles as a pitcher’s park, Renfroe’s big power and high walk numbers should remind Royals fans of Jorge Soler, who also has been a high walk and big power hitter not just as a Royal, but also when was a Cub as well.

In fact, when one sees his swing in action, as evidenced in the video below, it’s tantalizing to think about how Renfroe could complement hitters like Soler, Salvy, and Dozier in the Royals lineup.

Unfortunately, much like Soler, strikeouts and contact are big problems for Renfroe. The 28-year-old has a career strikeout rate of 28 percent in 1,589 plate appearances, and his career BB/K ratio is pretty mediocre at 0.27. That being said, while his career contact rate is bad, it not atrocious at 70.8 percent (in comparison, Soler and Mondesi’s contact the past two seasons has been 69.1 and 63.2 percent, respectively). Furthermore, he actually has showed more progress in making contact at the plate the past couple of seasons, as his contact rates rose from 70.9 in 2018, to 71.4 and 71.3 in 2019 and 2020, respectively. So, while Renfroe did struggle in his transition to the American League, it is possible that over a larger 162-game sample, Renfroe could replicate his production from his days in San Diego (high walk rates and lots of home runs), even if it was somewhat flawed (low average and high strikeout rates).

And thus, the big question is this: will Moore bring in Renfroe, a hitter and player who has been pretty “typical” to most Royals hitters since 2018 (i.e. high strikeout, low-to-mediocre OBP)? Or will he really try to find someone who bucks that mold?

If the Royals want to pursue the latter, then Renfroe may not be a fit in Kansas City.

Photo Credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

However, why am I still talking about Renfroe as a Royals possible signing? Well, it is mostly because Renfroe would fit the mold of the kind of free agents Moore has pursued the last few years. Whether it was Billy Hamilton, Homer Bailey, Chris Owings, or Maikel Franco, the Royals have gone after flawed, non-tendered players from other organizations coming off rough seasons, with the hope that those players could bounce back and thus, rekindle their value for the Royals organization. And while the strategy has fallen flat for Moore and the Royals at times (especially in the case of Hamilton and Owings), it has worked out on occasion as well (Bailey and Franco).

As of now, Renfroe probably will command something on the market similar to Franco a season ago, which would be in the one-year, $3-4 million per year range, as evidenced from Rays beat writer Juan Toribio, who covered the Rays’ roster shakeup last week:

Renfroe, who slashed .156/.252/.393 in his lone season with the Rays, was going to be a likely non-tender candidate before the Dec. 2 deadline for teams to tender contracts to any unsigned players on the 40-man roster, according to Bendix. MLB Trade Rumors projected Renfroe to earn more than $3.5 million in 2021 via arbitration.

With Kevin Kiermaier, Austin Meadows, Brett Phillips, Manuel Margot, Yoshi Tsutsugo on the roster alongside the emergence of postseason star Randy Arozarena, the Rays weren’t prepared to commit to Renfroe at that figure.

“Rays DFA Renfroe amid Rule 5 roster moves” by Juan Toribio;

Renfroe will still have two years of club control if signed or traded for (as evidenced from his Cot’s Contracts data), which could be both a good or bad thing. If he does poorly, he won’t hurt the Royals too bad financially. On the flip side, if he re-surges in 2021, it is possible that the Royals could find themselves in a spot with Renfroe after 2021 that would be similar to what they are facing with Franco this off-season (i.e. how much to they pay him if he’s not a part of their long-term future).

There are certainly some flaws and risks associated with the possible acquisition of Renfroe. The strikeouts are concerning, and defensively, he seems closer defensively to a player like Franco (i.e. not good) rather than Hamilton (i.e. good). In addition, signing Renfroe may push Whit Merrifield out of right and into center, which may not be good for the Royals defensively overall, as Whit’s defensive metrics the past two years show that right field may be his best position. While Franchy Cordero has played center field decently before, it may be better off to keep him in left to preserve his health, which unfortunately pushes Whit to center should Renfroe get signed by the Royals.

And thus, considering how much of a premium Moore has put on defense in his tenure as GM, it will be interesting to see if he would make the sacrifice in right field with Renfroe. That being said, he did make the same kind of gamble with Franco last year (who was metrically pretty poor defensively in Philadelphia), and it paid off, as Franco was much better than expected (though still pretty average).

Granted, the “Renfroe to Kansas City” narrative may be a stretch, and who knows what the Rays will do in regard to Renfroe prior to the December 2nd deadline. However, if available, Renfroe could be a cheap, temporary option in the outfield, and he could also provide a huge power boost at the bottom of the Royals lineup. Also, Renfroe could provide some insurance in the designated hitter spot, especially if Soler struggles with injury again in 2021.

Lastly, it doesn’t seem as if Royals fans are too down on the idea either (even if may be mostly sarcastic):

The Royals certainly have their choice in free agent options, which could get clearer in December once the Winter meetings begin. However, the Royals struck gold with a low-cost, high-upside non-tendered player in Franco in 2020.

Perhaps the Royals could strike gold again in 2021 with another former Top 10 prospect who was non-tendered by their previous team…

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