Assuming Maikel Franco signs a contract with the Orioles, he’ll be their third baseman. It will further complicate their decisions on a final roster.
Franco, a 28-year-old right-handed hitter, would be an offensive upgrade over incumbent third baseman Rio Ruiz. However, Ruiz, who is expected back today after being out because of illness, could still start the season at third base.
The final Grapefruit League game is in two weeks. Manager Brandon Hyde said over the weekend that it could be sufficient time for infielder Richie Martinto be ready; he’s expected back on Tuesday after recovering from hand surgery. If the team needs him, Franco could be afforded less time than that to get ready for the season.
It’s not known if Franco is already in the United States. Because of the continuing health protocols, getting him here from the Dominican Republic could take additional time. Once he’s here and passes his physical, he’ll have to quarantine for several days.
Only then can he begin workouts. Let’s say he’s ready to play in Grapefruit League games a week from now. Would a week of at-bats, including extra at-bats in simulated games, be enough for Franco?
If it’s not, Franco could stay behind for a few days, play some simulated games with Triple-A Norfolk and join the team after several days.
Or, the Orioles could find Franco’s in good enough shape to be the Opening Day third baseman on April 1st at Boston’s Fenway Park.
Once the Orioles sign Franco, they’ll have to clear roster space. Ruiz might be cut from the eventual 26-man roster, or the Orioles might elect to keep him for the time being.
The Orioles’ 40-man roster is full, and space would have to be cleared — not only for Franco but for some combination of veteran pitchers Matt Harvey, who starts Monday against Pittsburgh, Felix Hernández and Wade LeBlanc.
There are two Rule 5 pitchers, right-handers Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells, on the roster. One or both could be returned to their original teams, the Cincinnati Reds and Minnesota Twins.
Chris Davis, whose back condition has prevented him from playing since the first Grapefruit League game on February 28th, remains in treatment and could be placed on the 60-day injured list if the injury is considered chronic. That would create another spot, but that decision might not come until near the end of camp.
Once Franco is ready to play, it seems unlikely that Ruiz stays. Teams don’t generally carry two third basemen, and neither player has much of a history of playing other positions. Franco and Ruiz have some history at first base, but Hyde wants players who can back up shortstop and second base.
After six seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, Franco was not offered a contract after the 2019 season and signed a one-year, $2.95 million deal with Kansas City for 2020. He wasn’t offered a contract by the Royals on December 2nd, exactly a year after he and the Phillies parted ways.
Franco, who played in all 60 games for Kansas City in 2020, hit .278 with eight home runs and 38 RBIs and a .778 OPS.
In 2016, Franco had career highs of 25 home runs and 88 RBIs for the Phillies. He hit .255. A year later, he hit 24 homers, drove in 76 runs with a .230 average. In 2017, Franco hit .270 with a .780 OPS, hitting 22 home runs and producing 68 RBIs.
Franco’s non-tender came after the 2018 season when hit .234 with 17 homers and 56 RBIs. His OPS dropped to .705.
His defensive metrics at third aren’t strong. Franco’s career defensive WAR is -2.9.
Ruiz has been the Orioles’ primary third baseman since he was acquired on waivers from Atlanta in December 2018. He’s hit .229 with a .692 OPS in two seasons with the Orioles. His defensive WAR is .2.
“I think Rio has had real positive moments the last couple of years and had some negative moments as well,” Hyde said. “For the most part, he’s done a nice job at third base for us. He’s continuing to improve. He’s going to continue to get opportunities at third base. I’m going to play him as much as I can the last couple of weeks.”
Ruiz, 26, who is 1-for-12 (.083) in spring training, has been out for more than a week because of illness. He’s returning to the lineup on Monday.
“Rio hasn’t had much game action,” Hyde said. “He’s starting, really spring training today. He’s got a couple of weeks to get ready.”
Hunter Harvey’s absence: The Orioles have many decisions to make on the composition of their pitching staff. They could carry 13 or 14 to start the season. If they carry 14, that might make it easier to carry Matt Harvey, Hernández and LeBlanc.
Bruce Zimmermann’s stellar work in three games (nine scoreless innings, one hit) has made a compelling case for keeping him, whether has a starter or a multi-inning pitcher.
With Hunter Harvey out indefinitely because of an oblique injury, another spot has opened up. Shawn Armstrong, who’s scheduled to pitch on Monday, Jorge López and César Valdez are out of options. They may stay.
Tanner Scott or Valdez could be the late-inning guys, and Hyde might choose from Paul Fry, Travis Lakins, Cole Sulser or Dillon Tate for short relief.
Assuming starters John Means, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and the three veteran non-roster pitchers make the team, that leaves seven or eight spots available.
“With two weeks to go, there are so many things that could happen,” Hyde said. “We just lost Hunter. Injuries happen. Things happen throughout the course of spring training. I don’t want to jump the gun on making quick decisions just because there’s a lot of time.”
A 14-man pitching staff could mean not only Harvey, Hernández, LeBlanc stay, but López and Zimmermann, too. Having all those starting and long relief options means that either Fry, Lakins, Sulser or Tate doesn’t make the team. All have options remaining.
The Orioles have another pitcher to make a decision on, too. Left-hander Fernando Abad is also in camp on a minor league contract and if the Orioles want to carry him, he’ll have to be added to the 40-man roster.