Royals: Can a non-tender solve KC’s first base puzzle?

The Kansas City Royals have a looming question mark at first base. Is a recently non-tendered player without a team the solution?

First base is a problem for the Kansas City Royals. Not since Eric Hosmer left for free agency after the 2017 season has the club enjoyed a reliable, permanent fixture at the position–the two-part Lucas Duda experiment was ill-advised and failed miserably, and Ryan O’Hearn has yet to conclusively establish himself.

On Monday, a power-hitting first baseman hit the open market as some teams non-tendered arbitration-eligible players. His availability warrants some thought for the Royals.

C.J. Cron slugged 30 home runs with 74 RBI’s and hit a passable .253 for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018; yet, the Rays let him go on waivers to Minnesota after the season. Then, and despite a nagging thumb injury that plagued and derailed the second half of his season, Cron hit 25 homers with 78 RBI’s in 125 games for the Twins in 2019. Once again, he hit .253.

Nevertheless, the Twins non-tendered Cron, presumably because they didn’t believe the risk of arbitration was worth taking; some projected Cron could receive at least $7.7 million in arbitration, a potential raise of almost $3 million over his 2019 salary. He’s now a free agent.

Similar reasoning may have caused Tampa Bay to part company with Cron after the 2018 campaign. He made $2.3 million that season and surely would have received a significant boost after his 30 home run campaign. The Twins, eager to find a first base solution of their own after Joe Mauer‘s retirement following the 2018 season, claimed Cron off waivers and signed him for $4.9 million.

Cron’s bat is enough to warrant a look from KC’s new ownership. He hits with power, as his 55 home runs over the past two seasons prove; he hit 16 homers in each of his last three seasons with the Angels before they traded him to Tampa, and has averaged 19 per big league season. His OPS+ has exceeded league average in five of his six big league years and he was only two points below average in his “worst” year. (He strikes out a bit too much and doesn’t walk often, but those are traits common to many power hitters).

And Cron is a successful Kauffman Stadium hitter: he’s clubbed 8 home runs in 18 games there, with a Kauffman slash of .328/.348/.766 and OPS of 1.114. The spaciousness of the stadium clearly doesn’t intimidate him.

Despite his .195 batting average in 2019, O’Hearn enters the 2020 campaign as the Royals’ presumptive first baseman. In 149 games over two seasons, O’Hearn has 26 home runs and has driven in 68, totals that respectively project to 28 and 74 for a full 162-game season. Cron’s projections are quite similar–27 homers and 88 RBI’s. O’Hearn preceded his unsightly 2019 hitting with a .262 average in 2018, quite comparable to Cron’s .258 career average. O’Hearn’s yet to be realized potential is at least at Cron’s career offensive level.

Defense is not Cron’s strongest suit, which may explain why he’s been the designated hitter in 37% of his major league appearances. His career fielding percentage of .993 isn’t poor–it matches the major league average for first basemen in 2019 and Hosmer, a four-time Gold Glove winner, has a career .994 average. Although fielding percentage isn’t a perfect metric, Cron’s demonstrates he isn’t disastrous at first base.

O’Hearn’s 2019 .995 fielding percentage in 94 games at first suggests he’s at least Cron’s defensive equal (his .small sample size .983 over just 31 games in 2018 is less predictive).

Three important factors–compensation, age and injury–aren’t in Cron’s favor. Unless he secures a multi-season contract, he’ll be a free agent again after 2020 and a multi-million dollar price tag for one season may be too much for a KC team unlikely to increase its payroll. Cron will also turn 30 before Spring Training; O’Hearn won’t be 27 until after the All-Star break, and Ryan McBroom, the Royals’ late-season acquisition from the Yankees and a potential choice at first base, turns 28 in April. Although the age differences aren’t great, they still exist.

But perhaps more concerning is Cron’s thumb. The injury most certainly caused his second-half slump and forced him to the injured list twice; recent surgery renders length of recovery period and success uncertain. O’Hearn and McBroom are healthy.

Should the Royals go after Cron? Acquiring an established first baseman may be tempting while the club’s situation at that corner remains in question, but O’Hearn’s 2019 struggles at the plate haven’t proven him conclusively unworthy, and McBroom (or Hunter Dozier, if KC continues to experiment with him at first) may be suitable if O’Hearn doesn’t pan out.

Next: Is it time to extend Brad Keller's contract?

First base remains a puzzle for the Kansas City Royals. Ryan O’Hearn’s potential makes him the favorite for the position, but a poor 2019 season with the bat calls his future into question. C.J. Cron is a proven power-hitting first baseman, but his likely salary demand, age and recent surgery should concern the Royals. O’Hearn’s offensive struggles are also concerning, but it’s too early to give up on him. Only another full season may tell the O’Hearn tale. Until then, the club shouldn’t search for a new first baseman. For now, C.J. Cron isn’t the solution.