Right now Rio Ruiz is the starting third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles. That might be a problem were it not for the starters at almost all of the other positions. Which is to say, this isn’t the year for the Orioles go out and sign a big money player. That’s just not where they are right now. But there are ways to improve on some aspects of the Orioles’ roster, even this late in the off-season, and one of those improvable aspects is third base, temporary home of Ruiz. To wit, there are rumors the Orioles are interested in signing former Royal and Phillie Maikel Franco, presumably to give him a shot at taking over third base.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Franco is on the market because he was non-tendered earlier this off-season by the Royals in his final year of arbitration. That saved Kansas City about $6 million. Franco was on the Royals because he was non-tendered the year before by his original team, the Phillies. That was for the same reason, to save some money. So you kinda see where this is going. In both cases the teams decided a marginal amount of money and an open roster spot was better than having Maikel Franco.
And yet Franco is one of the best remaining free agents. He is still, despite his overall career performance, an interesting player. First of all, there was his 2020 season which was actually, kinda good. In 60 games, he was worth 1.3 wins, a rate that would have blown past his career best had he sustained it over a normal 162 game season. Of course that was always kind of the problem with Franco. He would come out of the gate, hit three homers in the first week, and that would be it, more or less, until May.
A former top prospect, Franco does have some skills, and in that way his floor is likely to be at least as good as Rio Ruiz is, but with more upside. Franco has some pop in his bat, he can take a walk, and he doesn’t strike out much, a career rate of just 15.7 percent. Also the numbers say he’s a decent third baseman. So what’s the problem?
Two things, broadly speaking. He’s been very streaky over his career and he’s had a number of very bad, very long runs of incredibly low production during his time in Philadelphia where, despite his skills, he’s was a black hole at the plate. That’s mostly what got him kicked out of Philadelphia. It was the totality of his performance too, but it’s tough to run a guy out there was your regular player when it takes him a month to fix whatever little thing he was doing wrong and get back to being league average again. As to Kansas City, it was mostly his track record. The Royals didn’t believe what he did in 2020 was an accurate depiction of how good he is. And since he’s still on the free agent market in mid-March we can deduce that every other team agrees with them.
The 2020 season was just nuts and we all know why. So teams aren’t putting all that much stock in it. That means Franco’s 2020 slash line of .278/.321/.457 in 2020 doesn’t mean a whole lot. For the Orioles though, Franco represents the same kind of buy-low opportunity they’ve seen in other players, such as Felix Hernandez, Matt Harvey, Freddie Galvis, and Yolmer Sanchez. All these guys have some skills, or had some skills, and if they can recapture or reorient themselves and become more productive players, they could have some trade value. The Orioles are in effect loaning their open roster spots to players to use to rejuvenate their careers. If it works, the Orioles get value in return when they deal that rejuvenated player elsewhere. Alternatively they could try to re-sign that player and keep them in Baltimore. It’s a pretty standard idea and it has stuck around because it’s a pretty good idea, good for both the team and players.
So even if the Orioles sign Franco, which they haven’t done yet, he’s not likely to be a long term solution at third base, certainly the absolute best case is not for more than three or four years, and, more likely, not for three or four months. I’m sure Orioles fans are probably tired of hearing about how the Orioles could sign a guy and hey, if he’s good, they can send him to another team, but that’s unfortunately where the team is right now in their contention cycle.
So this article was supposed to be all about Maikel Franco, and I think and hope I covered it for the most part above, but it strikes me that Franco fits on the Orioles because Ruiz is mediocre, but mostly because there just isn’t much behind Ruiz on the depth chart. Not in Triple-A and not really anywhere else in the minors. Right now it’s Rylan Bannon who came over from the Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade, and behind him, 19-year-old fourth round draft pick Coby Mayo. In Bannon the Orioles have a 24-year-old with the ability to hold down a big league job, but probably not someone who should be counted on to be the long term answer at third base. Mayo is 19 and while there are questions about him as well, as there would be for any 19-year-old, he’s a far more promising prospect and one who could be a regular third baseman if things break right for him. The problem is he’s pretty far away, being only 19 and having yet to play a professional inning (he was a 2020 draft pick).
Not having a ton of depth at third base in the organization isn’t necessarily a problem because players do switch positions as they move up the minor league ladder. Sometimes they switch because they need to find a position more appropriate to their abilities, but sometimes they move in preparation to fill an organizational need. Which is to say not all future third basemen play third base all the way through their time in the minors. This is all a long-winded way of saying it’s entirely possible one of Baltimore’s other prospects could get moved to third.
It’s also possible the Orioles could decided, enough with this prospect stuff, let’s sign Kris Bryant, or let’s trade for Jose Ramirez or Eugenio Suarez. There are other ways to solve the third base problem long term, but in the short term, Maikel Franco help out a bit. Or he might not.
Matthew Kory is a Orioles / MLB Analyst for BSL. He has covered baseball professionally for The Athletic, Vice Sports, Sports On Earth, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, two boys, and his cats, Mini Squeaks and The President. Co-Host of The Warehouse.