While the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros is going on right now, for most Royals fans, any baseball “attention” is on the offseason and what the Royals will do to improve their roster for 2022.
Yes, the Royals most likely will be adding pieces this Winter, especially if they are serious about taking the next step and improving upon their 74-88 record from the 2021 season. Last season, the Royals acquired Carlos Santana and Mike Minor in free agency, and added Andrew Benintendi from the Boston Red Sox via a trade. Hence, it is likely that newly promoted club president Dayton Moore and new General Manager JJ Picollo will be aggressive this Winter in adding talent, whether it is through free agency or perhaps a big trade, much like last offseason.
However, while adding talent is essential for any Major League team, let alone the Royals, making the right decision in terms of who to let go on the current 40-man roster to make room for those potential “additions” is also a crucial part of the offseason agenda. According to MLB Trade Rumors, the Royals will have nine players eligible for arbitration. While the Royals do have team control of those nine players for at least next season, they can also elect to not tender them a contract, which will result in them being released from the 40-man roster, and most likely end their days in the Kansas City organization (though some who are non-tendered can find their way back to the Royals as Minor League free agents).
The Royals last offseason retained most of their arbitration-eligible players, and even agreed to an extension on Hunter Dozier, which bought out his remaining arbitration-eligible seasons. However, the Royals did part ways with Maikel Franco last Winter, even though Franco posted a 106 wRC+ in his lone season in Kansas City. The move paid off though for the Royals, as Franco ended up posting a 62 wRC+ and -0.3 fWAR in 104 games with the Baltimore Orioles, before being designated for assignment in late August.
Thus, who are those “Franco”-esque players who could be non-tender candidates this Winter?
In this post, I have narrowed down three candidates whom the Royals probably will move on from this offseason, and I explain why bringing them back, even with some years of team control remaining, would probably do the organization more harm than good in 2022 and beyond.
Ryan O’Hearn, 1B/OF
Estimated AAV projection: $1.4 million; Becomes a free agent in 2026
At the surface level, O’Hearn most likely would not cost much this offseason, as MLB Trade Rumors projects that he would make less than $1.5 million this offseason. Furthermore, O’Hearn still has multiple years of team control, as this his first year entering arbitration, and he wouldn’t become a free agent until after the 2025 season.
Unfortunately, that’s where the positives of bringing back O’Hearn end.
O’Hearn isn’t exactly young, as he is 28-years-old, and is coming off a season in which he posted a 70 wRC+ and -0.7 fWAR in 84 games and 254 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. In fact, this was the third-straight season for O’Hearn in which he posted a negative fWAR after bursting on the scene in 2018 as a rookie.
In 44 games in 2018, O’Hearn posted a 153 wRC+ and 0.8 fWAR, which gave some Royals fans hope that he could hold down the first base position until Nick Pratto was ready for the Big Leagues (at the time, Pratto was the Royals’ No. 1 prospect before Brady Singer was drafted). Unfortunately, in 231 games from 2019 to 2021, O’Hearn has accumulated a -2.1 fWAR, and has averaged a wRC+ of 67.7, which is paltry on both ends.
Those numbers aren’t going to cut it at first base or the outfield, which O’Hearn moved to this past Summer in order to give himself some more utility as a player. Furthermore, with the Royals owing Carlos Santana $10.5 million next year, Pratto likely to make his MLB debut at some point in 2022, and Dozier’s best defensive position being first base, it just seems like there isn’t a “place” for O’Hearn on the Royals active roster next season.
If the Royals were to bring him back, it would simply be to add depth in Triple-A Omaha, and little else. At the very least, O’Hearn has proven he can mash Triple-A pitching, as evidenced by his performance in June with the Storm Chasers a season ago:
While that’s a positive for hardcore Royals fans who follow the Royals affiliates, let’s be honest: that isn’t worth $1.4 million dollars a year.
Honestly, it would be better for the Storm Chasers to give Vinnie Pasquantino a shot at the full-time first base role rather than a light-hitting first baseman who will be 29-years-old in 2022.
Jakob Junis, RHP
Estimated AAV projection: $1.8 million; Becomes a free agent in 2024
Part of me is rooting for Junis to stay in Kansas City. After all, he is a former 29th round pick who has appeared in 105 major league games since debuting with the Royals in 2017. Most 29th round picks don’t amount to anything in the Minor Leagues, let alone at the Major League level. Thus, the fact that Junis has generated 4.3 career fWAR, despite being selected so low in the draft is definitely a Royals player development success story.
That being said, it’s hard to envision a clear role for Junis in 2022 and 2023, the latter being his last year being under Royals team control.
The problem with Junis is that he’s a tweener of sorts as a pitcher. He doesn’t quite have the stuff to be an elite reliever, but he doesn’t have the stamina or repetoire to be a full-time starter as well. Granted, the Royals most likely will not bring back Ervin Santana, who filled the long relief role for the Royals in 2021. Furthermore, Junis did add a cutter this past season, which proved to be quite effective when commanded well, as evidenced by this strikeout of the Pirates’ Adam Frazier below:
However, is it worth it to pay nearly $2 million for a long reliever, especially one that has posted an ERA over five the past three seasons?
Junis does a good job of generating K’s (9.38 K/9 last year) and limiting walks (3.42 K/BB ratio). That being said, his problems with giving up the long ball (career HR/9 of 1.61) have really prevented him from being more than simply a “mediocre” pitcher who doesn’t have a set place on the Royals pitching staff. The Royals honestly would be better off giving the long relief role to Jackson Kowar or another Royals pitching prospect than a pitcher who is already 29-years-old and probably won’t be in this organization beyond 2023.
Junis has been a nice little success story for the Royals’ Player Development staff, but it would be better for the Royals to cut him loose sooner rather than later, especially with the amount of pitching depth they have right now in the Majors and in Omaha.
Hanser Alberto, INF
Estimated AAV projection: $2.1 million; Becomes a free agent in 2023.
Alberto was a nice pickup this past offseason, as he basically slid into Franco’s roster spot, and added a lot more position versatility than Franco (the latter was solely a third baseman). Alberto didn’t offer the power upside of the former Royals corner infielder, but he was better at making consistent contact, and Alberto in a reserve role in Kansas City produced a much better season than Franco in a regular role in Baltimore in terms of wRC+ (84 to Franco’s 62) as well as fWAR (0.6 to -0.3).
Furthermore, Alberto garnered rave reviews from Royals fans and teammates for his energetic attitude, as well as positive presence on the field and in the Royals clubhouse:
The temptation would be for thre Royals to keep him in a bench role for the 2022 season. I get that his clubhouse presence was definitely needed in 2021, especially during a year where the Royals went through some tremendous highs and lows as a team in terms of wins and losses as well as injuries. However, when looking at the Royals Depth Chart via Fangraphs’ Roster Resource, keeping Alberto may make the roster situation quite complicated in 2022.
First off, the Royals already have third baseman Emmanuel Rivera on the 40-man roster, even though Rivera finished the season in Omaha. And while he didn’t make his MLB debut, the Royals still have infielder Lucius Fox on the 40-man roster, who finished an uneven Storm Chasers campaign strong. Nicky Lopez and Whit Merrifield seem to be locks at shortstop and second base in 2022, respectively. And Adalberto Mondesi will need a position to play, be it at third base, designated hitter, or even the outfield (should the Royals want to test him out there this Spring).
And let’s not forget about Bobby Witt, Jr. and what he did this past season in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, respectively:
Witt Jr. will have to play somewhere in the infield when he debuts, and third base or shortstop seems to be the most logical choice.
Thus, much like O’Hearn, there doesn’t seem to be a spot for Alberto on this roster in 2022, even though Alberto certainly is more deserving of a roster spot next season than O’Hearn, based on last year’s contributions and performance.
I, like many Royals fans, enjoyed Alberto’s free-swinging approach, endless energy, and on-field bravado, especially after stellar defensive plays at Kauffman Stadium:
However, Alberto will be a free agent after next season, and he also just turned 29-years-old. This Royals team needs to get younger, not older, and Alberto, honestly, doesn’t fit that mold.
At least Royals fans’ memories of Alberto’s lone season in Kansas City will be positive ones for the most part.
Photo Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images