'He can swing it': O's reach deal with Franco

March 16th, 2021

The Orioles have a new third baseman. The club on Tuesday finalized its one-year deal with veteran , bringing the most productive free-agent position player left on the market to Baltimore.

The deal will pay Franco $800,000 plus up to $200,000 in incentives, as well as a bonus if Franco is traded, according to MLB Network Insider Jon Heyman. The O’s did not confirm the financials of the deal, which was agreed upon last weekend. The contract allows the Orioles to send Franco to their alternate training site to begin the season if necessary.

To clear room on the 40-man roster, the Orioles transferred Hunter Harvey to the 60-day injured list. Harvey is out indefinitely after straining his left oblique on Friday.

“[Franco's] addition takes a good bit of pressure off a lot of the different hitters around our lineup,” Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said. “He is someone who is going to help us a lot and fit in very well with the personnel we have on this roster. I think it gives us not only an upgrade in the lineup, but makes our team deeper and protects us from what’ll be a long season.”

Once a big-time prospect with the Phillies, Franco developed into a quality but inconsistent player with Philadelphia, hitting .249 with 102 homers and a .733 OPS (93 OPS+) over parts of six seasons. He caught on with the Royals after the Phillies non-tendered him in 2019, hitting .278 with eight homers and a .778 OPS (109 OPS+) and playing in all 60 games with Kansas City last year. The Royals non-tendered Franco rather than pay the raise he would’ve earned in arbitration, based on his prorated $2.95 million ’20 salary.

All told, Franco, 28, is a career .252/.304/.433 hitter with 110 home runs and a 94 OPS+ over parts of seven big league seasons. He has historically been rated a below-average defender at third base, accumulating -19 Outs Above Average at the position since 2016, per Statcast.

“The guy has some serious pop and can do some damage,” said Matt Harvey, who pitched against Franco in the National League East and was teammates with him in Kansas City in ’20. “He definitely has an unbelievable arm and plays a good third base. He can swing it. And from the short season last year that I spent time with him, he’s a great teammate. Whatever is decided, it will be good to have some extra bats, always.”

Franco is expected to push out as the O’s primary third baseman, or at least form a platoon between the two. Claimed off waivers in Elias’ first transaction as the Orioles' general manager in late 2018, Ruiz hit .229/.299/.393 with 21 homers (85 OPS+) as Baltimore's everyday starter the past two seasons. He is 4-for-16 this spring, having missed more than a week due to illness.

(For what it’s worth regarding a potential platoon: Franco has more or less even career splits, while Ruiz actually posts reverse splits, though in a much smaller sample.)

“For Rio, he’s played well for us for a couple of years. I think we’re going to need more options, right-handed options at times, and more depth,” Elias said. “I think it's a possibility to have any of these guys in an Opening Day mix together … [It] certainly seems very possible to me that both of those guys are on the team at the same time -- the whole year if that’s what happens.”

Franco would also profile for at-bats at designated hitter after the club released Renato Núñez (12 homers, 121 OPS+ in 2020) before the tender deadline. is another candidate, if he can prove healthy after a recent hamstring injury; the O’s also plan to use the spot regularly to spell in his first season back from battling colon cancer. Elias also mentioned first base as a possibility for Franco, who has appeared in 13 career games there.

Before Franco came into the fold, Ruiz’s main competition this spring was coming from Rylan Bannon, a bat-first prospect (No. 26 in Baltimore’s system, per MLB Pipeline) who can also play second base. But Bannon is just 3-for-13 (with seven walks) so far in Grapefruit League play and was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk later Tuesday. Signing Franco provides more certainty at the position, which is lean on upper-level prospects behind Bannon, and gives the rebuilding Orioles another potential trade chip to float come the Trade Deadline.