Over the weekend, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that the Orioles are considering the idea of signing free agent infielder Maikel Franco. It was a surprising development that would certainly add intrigue to O’s camp and make Rio Ruiz’s position as the team’s starting third baseman much more precarious.
Orioles are among teams considering Maikel Franco. There are others though.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) March 6, 2021
Back in the day, Franco was a big-name prospect in the Phillies system. He emerged on the big league stage in 2014 as a 22-year-old and went on to serve as Philly’s starting third baseman through the 2019 season. His time spent in Philadelphia was rocky, often oscillating between breakout seasons and subpar campaigns in which he didn’t even look like a big leaguer. An especially poor 2019 led the Phillies to non-tender him.
Franco spent the 2020 season with the Royals, where he was back to being a force at the plate. Appearing in each of the team’s 60 games, Franco hit .278/.321/.457 with eight home runs and a 106 wRC+. He put up these numbers while playing steady, albeit unremarkable, defense at the hot corner. Despite this, Kansas City non-tendered Franco in December as he was entering his final year of arbitration and due a sizable raise over the $2.95 million he earned in 2020.
Franco now enters his age-28 season once again searching for a job. It’s something that could prove difficult at this late stage. Not only do most team’s have their roster’s largely set, but there is also the COVID quarantine period that players have to wade through prior to even playing for their new squad. Of course, that didn’t stop the Astros from giving Jake Odorizzi a two-year pact over the weekend. It just takes one team to have a hole for a suitor to emerge.
The Orioles do not have an obvious hole at third base. Ruiz is penciled in as the starter, and they have other internal options, like Pat Valaika, Rylan Bannon or Jahmai Jones, who could handle the position in a pinch. But none of those guys will be mistaken for Brooks Robinson, and it’s fully reasonable to think that Franco would be an upgrade over each of them.
If we take 2020 in a vacuum then it becomes a pretty easy argument. Franco and his 106 wRC+ was far more valuable at the plate than Ruiz and his 90 wRC+, which was bookended by nice weeks to start and end the year but consisted largely of ugly strikeouts. Things are more even in the field where Franco recovered from career-long range issues while Ruiz seemed to regress, although advanced metrics say he actually improved from -5 DRS in 2019 to 2 DRS in 2020. If those set of facts repeated themselves in 2021 then Franco is the better option.
But it would make no sense to base decisions for a full 162-game season on player performance in a weird 60-game schedule that prevented teams from playing outside of their divisional regions. Zoom out on the performances of Ruiz and Franco over their entire careers and it gets murkier.
Franco has had much higher highs, like a standout rookie season in 2015 that saw him hit .280/.343/.497 with 14 home runs over 80 games and more recently with a solid 1.1 fWAR in 2018. But he has also demonstrated an ability to fully crater and put together a .230/.281/.409 batting line over a full 2017 season.
Ruiz, on the other hand, has less of a track record, having played more than 50 MLB games in a season just three times. His fWAR in those years has bounced between -0.1 and 0.4. He is a replacement level player that the Orioles will move on from as soon as it is apparent that there is a suitable improvement available. But his consistency is comforting for a team whose current goals include nurturing a young pitching staff.
One area where Franco’s boom-or-bust profile could be attractive to the Orioles is as a possible trade chip. He has the potential to put up good enough numbers to become an easy-to-move piece in the middle of the summer. Of course, expectations there would need to be tempered. Franco is not about to land the Orioles any premium prospects. However, Mike Elias has shown a proclivity to cast a wide net in trades, adding low-level players that he believes have a chance to be developed. A swap involving Franco could be perfect for such a scenario.
Before any of these situations can actually play themselves out, the Orioles and Franco would need to agree on a deal. At this point in their rebuild, the O’s have not been inclined to guarantee major league money but may instead prefer a minor league deal with an enticing salary should Franco spend time in the majors. That would maximize roster flexibility and keep costs low, which has been the Orioles modus operandi for a couple years now.
If Franco were to land a big league deal that would likely earn Ruiz a spot at the team’s alternate camp to open the season and a place in Norfolk come May. The former Astros draft pick does have two option years remaining, so that alone would be easy enough. But the team’s 40-man roster is full, and giving Franco an MLB contract would squeeze someone else, and that’s before even considering the moves that will need to be made if and when the likes of Felix Hernandez and Wade LeBlanc have to be added later on.
The Orioles have room for improvement at third base, and there is reason to believe that Franco would provide that while becoming a worthwhile trade chip. But it’s far from a guarantee. Taking a chance on the former top prospect makes sense if the deal is right, but it’s not worth upending the roster to make happen.