The KC Royals tendered their designated hitter Wednesday, but not their third baseman.
The KC Royals, a franchise known for its fiscal conservatism and adversity to taking big chances, avoided big gambles again Wednesday.
Facing a 7 p.m. Kansas City time deadline to tender 2021 contracts to most of its 40-man roster, including several key players eligible for arbitration, the Royals signed slugging designated hitter Jorge Soler to a one-year deal, but non-tendered popular third baseman Maikel Franco, who instantly became a free agent eligible to negotiate with any club.
Kansas City also signed and secured the continued services of Hunter Dozier, although what position he’ll play next season is now unknown (more on that later). In addition to Franco, the team didn’t offer deals to Bubba Starling, Erick Mejia and Jeison Guzman, so they, too, are free agents.
The moves followed the previous signings of Jesse Hahn, Franchy Cordero and Jakob Junis and the designations for assignment of Carlos Sanabria and Foster Griffin.
The Royals summarized the moves in a Tweet just minutes before the tender deadline passed:
Signing Soler and letting Franco go highlighted the KC Royals’ Wednesday action and, because the moves were so low-risk, shouldn’t surprise anyone.
The risk of losing Soler outweighed the risk of arbitrating with him. He rewarded the club’s patience in 2019 by clubbing a team record 48 homers, driving in 117 runs and slashing .265/.354/569 (he also played every game). With an adjustment for the 43 games out of 60 he played, his key numbers for the short 2020 campaign extrapolated to about 30 home runs and 90 RBIs for a 162-game campaign.
For the Royals, losing Soler meant losing their primary DH and increasing their typical power void, and the club surely didn’t want to add replacing him to its list of offseason needs. And chances of turning Soler in an advantageous trade deadline deal next season (he’ll be a free agent after 2021) would have vanished.
According to Baseball Prospectus’ helpful Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Soler played 2020 for $7.3 million (before proration). The Royals re-signed him for a reported $8.05 million for next season; Major League Baseball Trade Rumors predicted he’d receive between $7.4 and $9.2 million in arbitration, so inking Soler made sense and avoided the double risk of losing him, or losing money by arbitrating with him.
That Franco wasn’t tendered also isn’t shocking. Despite justifying General Manager Dayton Moore’s decision to sign him last winter—Franco didn’t miss a game, led the Royals in RBIs (38) and doubles (16), was third in home runs (8), tied for fourth in walks (16) and hit a respectable .278—media and Internet speculation leading into Wednesday increasingly suggested he’d be cut loose. Franco was certain to realize a good arbitration award (up to $8 million, according to MLBTR’s projections) if he pushed Kansas City to arbitration.
His 2020 contract was, per Cot’s, for just under $3 million (pre-proration), so his non-tender might have saved the Royals $5 million. And saving money is something this franchise likes to do, especially when it’s facing other needs, including a highly anticipated extension of Salvador Perez’s contract.
Dozier signs reported guaranteed deal to stay with the KC Royals
To absolutely no one’s surprise, the team kept Hunter Dozier in the fold, but with a bit of a wrinkle. Clubs often sign pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players to one-year contracts but don’t guarantee them, instead making full pay contingent upon making the Opening Day roster. But Dozier’s 2021 agreement is reported by mlb.com’s Mark Feinsand to be guaranteed:
Does Franco’s departure force Dozier back to third base? Possibly, although he may be more valuable at first, the position to which he moved from the outfield late in 2020 when Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom weren’t up to the job. KC liked what it saw and may keep Dozier there. That would leave third up for grabs with Kelvin Gutierrez (a good bet otherwise to be the utility infielder), or a free agent, as possible replacements until Bobby Witt Jr. is ready; Witt is a shortstop but may move to third instead of displacing Adalberto Mondesi.
KC Royals don’t offer deal to Bubba Starling
The Royals also non-tendered Bubba Starling, the outfielder whose inability to hit big league pitchers prevents him from fulfilling his once-abundant promise and potential. The Royals stuck with Starling through the thick and thin of a longer than anticipated minor league career tainted by an unexpected lack of power and dotted with various injuries, but his excellent defense didn’t give the club sufficient reason to keep him.
As of late Wednesday night, the Royals hadn’t announced the tender status of other players, including Brad Keller, Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez, but that doesn’t mean fans should panic. The club had to offer players by the deadline; nothing requires it to publicly announce the offers and, more importantly, nothing requires tendered players to agree to any terms right away. They can try to negotiate better deals, and their deadline to file for arbitration hasn’t arrived.
Also unclear is the future of non-tendered players Franco, Starling, Guzman and Mejia. For now, cutting them loose opened four spots on the Royals’ 40-man roster, which gives Moore maneuvering room on the free agent and trade markets. But because Kansas City has always been high on infielders Guzman and Mejia, don’t be surprised if they remain on the club’s radar and return on minor league deals if they don’t soon receive better offers. The same goes for Starling, a player with whom the Royals have been extremely patient and clearly like.
But what about Franco? Never say never—bringing him back down the short road, when Moore has done all the offseason personnel work he can, and on a short deal, would re-plug the hole at third until a long-term solution arrives. And Dozier could stay at first base, where he seems comfortable.
The KC Royals kept a slugger and let other players go Wednesday. But don’t be shocked if some, if not all, of the non-tendered Royals return.