With offseason nearly done, could Maikel Franco be back in Kansas City?

With about six days until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, baseball fans are seeing teams make their final moves in the “hot stove” season. The Royals made a huge splash in their acquisition of Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi, and it seems like the may have been the final move for general manager Dayton Moore as the team prepares for camp in Surprise.

Or do the Royals still have a move or two left in them in these final days?

I saw this on Twitter this morning and it piqued my curiosity:

According to Roster Resource’s Free Agent Tracker on Fangraphs, Franco is the fourth-best free agent available on the market based on 2020 fWAR. Granted, he ranks 12th out of unsigned free agents in projected fWAR, and that probably is why he remains unsigned with less than a week to go until pitchers and catchers report.

Then again, it is possible that Franco maybe turned a corner in his MLB career, and could repeat his production from 2020 over a full 162 game slate in 2021. That being said, he did disappoint quite often during his time in Philadelphia (ask any Phillies fan about his tenure), and Royals fans have to wonder if that history, especially in 2019, has scared off other front offices this Winter.

The situation between Franco and the Royals is an interesting conundrum for a variety of reasons, especially with Spring Training so close to starting. The Royals acquired Franco last offseason in a surprising move. The Royals seemed set at third with Hunter Dozier, who was a runner-up in the All-Star voting at third back in 2019 (he eventually lost out to Houston’s Alex Bregman). However, the move paid off for Moore and the Royals: Franco bounced back with a .278/.321/.457 slash, a .329 wOBA, 106 wRC+, and 1.3 fWAR in 60 games and 243 plate appearances in 2020. Furthermore, in addition to his bounce back at the plate, Franco also improved defensively, as his DRS (defensive runs saved) improved from -2 in 2019 with Philadelphia to 0 in 2020 with Kansas City, and his UZR improved from -0.1 in 2019 to 1.3 in 2020, according to Fangraphs. For just under $3 million, Franco proved to be a tremendous bargain for the Royals last year.

However, though he seemed to fit in well in Kansas City a year ago, Moore made the difficult decision to non-tender him this off-season. At the time, Franco’s projected arbitration amount was between $4.5 and 8 million, depending on the standard, according to MLB Trade Rumors. While Franco was a productive Royal and solid clubhouse guy, the Royals didn’t see Franco as a long-term option, especially with Dozier on the roster and Bobby Witt, Jr. looming.

And yet, though this has been a slow-developing offseason across the league, Franco remains unsigned by a MLB club. And while many Royals fans may think it’s worth moving on from Franco for good, the 28-year-old corner infielder from the Dominican Republic could be a shrewd move by Moore and the Royals, especially if they are serious about “contending” in the AL Central in 2021.

As of now, the Royals are projected to start Hunter Dozier at third base for 2021, which makes a lot of sense with what currently is available on the roster. Nicky Lopez is a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman, and even though Whit isn’t as strong in the outfield as he is at second, he has proven to at least be competent in right field based on most metrics. However, Dozier’s glove didn’t seem to wow the Royals front office in 2019 (hence, the Franco move) and even Mike Matheny seemed more apt to put Dozier at first not just in 2020, but in 2021 until the Royals acquired Carlos Santana. Thus, while Dozier’s bat obviously plays at third base (he’s projected for a 104 DRC+ according to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections), it’s yet to be determined if his glove can play there long-term.

Franco, on the other hand, may not necessarily be a Gold Glove-caliber defensive third baseman. That being said, he showed aptitude at the hot corner in 2020, and it could be from the change of environment last year. Furthermore, Dozier’s last stint at third didn’t really produce a lot of great metrics, as he posted a -5 DRS and -5.2 UZR in 2019, according to Fangraphs data. Of course, he also posted a -4 DRS and -0.2 UZR in right field in 2020, so it may just be a case that Dozier will be an average to below-average defensive player overall, no matter where he plays (though I do wonder what he could do if fully healthy).

Thus, with that being said about Dozier, the goal may be for the Royals to boost their lineup as much as possible on the offensive end. And Franco may give them the best option available on the market to accomplish this goal, and he wouldn’t be a total black hole defensively either at the hot corner. Let’s take a look at PECOTA projections for not only Franco, but also other Royals players whom Franco’s possible re-signing would affect:

  • Maikel Franco: 100 DRC+, 1.1 WARP
  • Hunter Dozier: 104 DRC+, 1.5 WARP
  • Nicky Lopez: 84 DRC+, 0.8 WARP
  • Whit Merrifield: 105 DRC+, 2.2 WARP

The big difference here to note from these projections is the stark difference in DRC+ projections between Franco and Lopez, which is 16 points. That’s a huge offensive difference, and though Lopez’s defense helps make up that gap on a WARP basis, it still is not enough to compare to Franco, who has 0.3 WARP difference from the former Creighton Blue Jay.

Another positive aspect of potentially bringing back Franco is that it could put Lopez in a utility role, which may better suit him, especially with his bat a question mark after questionable production metrics in 2019 and 2020. It also may give him a less pressure-filled situation to build up his hitting, while also utilizing what he does best: defense in the middle infield. In addition, a possible Franco reunion could also bring Whit back to second, which is his natural and best defensive position, metrically speaking. While he isn’t the Gold Glove-caliber infielder that Lopez is, he has a career DRS of 8 and UZR of 4.6 at second, according to Fangraphs data. Those defensive metrics are perfectly serviceable, especially considering his offensive upside in comparison to Lopez.

The big issue with this possible reunion may be whether or not Franco would welcome a return to Kansas City, especially at a lower-than-expected price. Moore made this comment in a Jeffrey Flanagan piece after the Royals signed Michael A. Taylor, and the comment seemed to be passively directed at Franco, whom the Royals ended up non-tendering:

“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.”

“Royals ink Taylor to one-year contract” by Jeffrey Flanagan; Royals.com

Thus, it is plausible that discussions may not have gone the way Franco wanted, and one has to wonder if Franco would resist such a reunion, just based on hard feelings from the Royals’ decision to non-tender him, despite a productive 2020. Furthermore, one has to wonder as well if the Royals were just ready to move on from Franco in general, and may not believe that he could re-produce his 2020 numbers again over the full course of a 162-game season in 2021. Those details are hazy, and it seems to be anyone’s guess in regard to what the current relationship is between Franco and the Royals front office.

That being said, while Franco would be a cheap, one-year option, it could benefit both parties in the short term. Franco would make this team even closer to contention, and he understands the clubhouse and environment in Kansas City, which shouldn’t be taken lightly. If the Royals want to take the next step in the standings, they will need to have guys who understand the culture of manager Mike Matheny and Moore. Franco has plenty of experience with that and has demonstrated that he can thrive in such a culture.

In addition, if Franco does perform, and say, Kelvin Gutierrez or Witt seem ready for a call up later in the season, the Royals could explore trading Franco this time around, which may put him in a situation where he could perhaps parlay a short-term tenure into a longer-term deal with a team with more flexibility. Thus, Franco may stand to gain a little more in coming back to Kansas City, especially since he may not get better than a Minor League deal from any other club as it stands now.

It may be a reach, and honestly, I think there is only a 10-15 percent chance of Franco returning, even with his value affordable for a Royals team that still could add another contract or two in the off-season’s final week before Spring camp begins. That being said, Royals fans shouldn’t dismiss the idea of Franco coming back entirely. If the Royals are truly intent on “competing” this year, Franco as the regular third baseman, Dozier in right field, and Whit as the regular second baseman would accomplish that goal better than Dozier at third , Whit in right, and Lopez at second.

In 2018, Royals fans were preparing to move on from Mike Moustakas and he ended up re-signing in Kansas City on an affordable one-year deal.

It will be interesting to see if the same thing happens with Franco in 2021.

(Photo Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images)

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