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Orioles sign Maikel Franco to one-year contract

Better adjust your Opening Day roster guesses, because it sure looks like the Orioles are adding a new 3B into the mix.

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

With the exhibition schedule half over and Opening Day only about two and a half weeks away, the Orioles are adding a free agent into their roster picture. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported on Sunday night that the Orioles and third baseman Maikel Franco are finalizing an agreement.

The Orioles officially announced the signing on Tuesday afternoon. The corresponding roster move for adding Franco is Hunter Harvey being placed on the 60-day injured list. Harvey suffered an oblique injury two days ago and early signs are that he’ll miss a while.

Heyman reported in advance of the signing that Franco is set to make $800,000 in salary for 2021, with up to $200,000 in incentives and a bonus if he is traded. Significantly for the Orioles roster picture, the contract includes an agreement that Franco may be optioned for the “first few weeks” of the season to make up for his signing so late in spring training.

Franco, 28, is a seven-year MLB veteran who broke in with the Phillies and has been a regular player since the 2016 season. In his career, Franco is a .252/.304/.433 hitter, though his 2020 shortened season numbers are a bit better than that. Franco hit .278/.321/.457 while playing all 60 games last year.

The signing is a bit of a surprise after general manager Mike Elias told Orioles reporters a few days ago that there was “nothing imminent on the horizon” as far as possibly signing free agents. Elias did allow for the possibility that there could be change to that, and even if he didn’t, this is the same guy who stood in front of a TV that was tuned to MLB Network reports about the Orioles hiring Brandon Hyde to be manager and then denied that the Orioles had hired Hyde. As we know, within days, the Orioles hired Hyde.

The right-handed Franco was non-tendered by the Phillies after the 2019 season, leading to his signing with the Royals. The Royals, in turn, non-tendered Franco following the 2020 campaign. That points to Franco as a player who teams value less than the arbitration system would pay him.

Franco has been an inconsistent player in his career, with two seasons at an OPS+ of 81 or lower. That is the kind of thing that puts a damper on interest in paying him the escalating salary numbers that the arbitration system virtually guarantees.

It’s not immediately certain how this will impact the roster once Franco is added to the big league club, although it’s not hard to take a guess, either. Franco has played 98.8% of his big league innings on defense at third base. Presumably, he is being signed to be the regular third baseman.

The Orioles incumbent third baseman is Rio Ruiz, and though Franco’s no great shakes at the plate, he’s solidly outpaced Ruiz. As an Oriole, Ruiz is batting .229/.299/.393. Ruiz is heading into his age 27 season, so the O’s may feel like they’ve seen enough of him.

According to Fangraphs, Ruiz does have two minor league options remaining. He could get sent down to Triple-A Norfolk instead of being sent up to the great DFA in the sky. That might displace Rylan Bannon from the presumed third base job with the Tides. Then again, Bannon also plays second base - although that would displace Jahmai Jones, the prospect from the Alex Cobb trade, from that presumed job.

There’s been some camp noise about possibly putting Jones in the outfield. Maybe that’s what will happen. Or Ruiz could just be released. Or the Orioles could come up with some other surprise configuration either by choice or out of necessity if there are injuries down the road. A platoon situation at the MLB level strikes me as unlikely. The lefty-batting Ruiz has reverse splits in his career, hitting poorer against righties. The righty Franco has hit about the same against both lefties and righties.

This is certainly shaping up to be an Orioles infield that looks different than the regular plan for 2020. You might have quite easily assumed all three of Hanser Alberto, Jose Iglesias, and Ruiz would be returning for 2021. Now, before long into the 2021 season, it may be that all of them are gone from the picture.

The Orioles additions of Yolmer Sánchez and Freddy Galvis to play second base and shortstop, respectively, seem to have been made with an eye on defensive value. Franco, uh... he has not been known for defense in his career. Using the Defensive Runs Saved metric, Franco rated at -37 runs from 2015 to 2020, including double digit negatives in two seasons. He sat right at 0 with the Royals in 2020.

Perhaps the Orioles were sold on those improvements, or at least sold enough to think it’s worth rolling the dice on Franco turning himself into a July trade piece. It’s not like they’d be shoving a Gold Glove defender off of third base. Ruiz has rated as a net neutral defender at best. I hope Ruiz doesn’t have any non-refundable deposits put down for Baltimore housing for the 2021 season.

For his career, Franco has veered between acceptable years and bust years. The pattern since 2016 has been for the acceptable years to be in even years and bust years to be in odd years. In 2017, he had a .690 OPS. In 2019, Franco posted a .705 OPS. Let’s hope that pattern doesn’t hold through to 2021. I’m not super hopeful, as Franco posted a career-high BABIP in the shortened 2020 season while posting career low exit velocity.

The story has been updated to reflect that the signing is now official.