The KC Royals made six important 40-man roster moves Tuesday, adding three players—Diego Hernández, Freddy Fermin and Alec Marsh—to protect them from next month’s Rule 5 draft, and designating three others—Jake Brentz, Brent Rooker and Nathan Webb—for assignment.
It was another move the club made, however, that may, at least in the short term, overshadow the other six. Defying logic and popular sentiment, the Royals re-signed Ryan O’Hearn.
Yes. The same Ryan O’Hearn who suffered the indignity of hitting .195 two straight years (2019 and 2020), has no everyday position to play, and whose .219 career average is eye-popping, but not in a good way.
And the same Ryan O’Hearn whose release fans justifiably cried for throughout 2022.
If he wasn’t under the proverbial microscope before, he is now. Rest assured the watch for his departure has already begun. If he doesn’t perform, the clamor for it will follow in short order.
What compelled the KC Royals to re-sign Ryan O’Hearn for the 2023 season?
As illogical as it sounds, Kansas City bringing O’Hearn back isn’t that surprising. After all, the Royals have consistently stuck by him when his performance hasn’t warranted it.
Many clubs wouldn’t have.
There are those two .195 seasons, the .225 he hit two years ago and 2022’s .239, the final average boosted significantly by a season-long pinch hitting performance that flew in the face of all his other hitting (more on that in a moment).
Early in August, after O’Hearn unsurprisingly survived the trade deadline and remained a Royal, we offered in this space three possible reasons why the Royals didn’t part ways with him—his pinch hitting, his position as a “placeholder,” and the fact manager Mike Matheny thought a lot of him.
Two of those reasons no longer apply. O’Hearn can’t be considered a placeholder—someone who plays only because prospects aren’t yet ready—any longer. Primarily a reserve but occasionally a first baseman, outfielder, or DH, he’s been displaced at first by the success of Vinnie Pasquantino and the presence of backup Hunter Dozier, and the Royals have an abundance of better outfield and designated hitter options. And Matheny is gone.
So, just why is O’Hearn coming back?
Using him as a trade chip probably isn’t the answer. Only O’Hearn’s rookie season numbers—12 home runs, 30 RBIs, a .262/.353/.597 line and 153 wRC+ in 2018—and the 14 homers he hit in an otherwise poor 2019 campaign remain as perhaps the only evidence that he might someday become an adequate everyday major leaguer. There is, simply put, no solid market for O’Hearn.
Is it his mysterious success as a pinch hitter? Matheny used him in that role frequently this season and O’Hearn went 11-for-30, an excellent performance without which he’d have hit .201 instead of .239. But a non-contending team shelling out the $1.4 million base Kansas City Star KC beat writer reports (Twitter link) the Royals will pay O’Hearn next season to occasionally pinch hit doesn’t make much sense.
Maybe Major League Baseball’s banning of hard defensive shifts, a prohibition that begins next season, has the club dreaming of what O’Hearn, who struggles against shifts, can do without them.
Or could it be that the good, but fading, memories of O’Hearn’s 2018 campaign make KC decision makers believe he’ll someday play and hit just like he did then?
Perhaps the best answer is “Who knows?” After all, trying to figure out the Royals-O’Hearn dynamic hasn’t borne much fruit.
How long O’Hearn lasts is anyone’s guess. But the O’Hearn Watch is on … again.
Ryan O’Hearn has a new deal with Kansas City.