Matt Kremnitzer: New Orioles 3B Maikel Franco Is An Upgrade … Unless He’s Not

One of the more interesting things about the Orioles’ offseason is how they approached remaking their infield. Out with José Iglesias, Hanser Alberto and Renato Núñez and in with Freddy Galvis, Yolmer Sánchez and Trey Mancini. Mancini, of course, was only out of the picture last season after being diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer and undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Thankfully, he’s back and appears to be at full strength.

But even though Sánchez has experience at third base, he was viewed mainly as a replacement for Alberto at second base. That meant Rio Ruiz was essentially left unchallenged over at third base.

A few weeks into spring training, that’s no longer the case. The Orioles have signed veteran third baseman Maikel Franco to a one-year contract for $800,000. The deal includes various incentives, but most importantly, as reported by Jon Heyman, Franco can be optioned to the O’s alternate training site in Bowie to start the year due to him signing late.

Franco’s signing appears to make Ruiz’s presence on the O’s roster redundant. The move may not mean the end of Ruiz in the Baltimore organization entirely — he has options remaining and could find his way to the alternate training site or Triple-A Norfolk — but Franco inked a major-league deal and when he’s active, he’s going to play.

Yesterday, GM Mike Elias talked up Franco’s ability to fill in at first base and DH and for both players to coexist, but that makes little sense considering the makeup of the O’s roster and the need to find playing time for younger players. There’s already a 1B/DH logjam with Chris Davis around, but maybe his back injury could keep him on the shelf for a while.

Still, the timing of the move does seem a little odd. Maybe the O’s figure they’re getting a bargain in Franco. Maybe they’re looking for another potential trade chip. Or maybe they didn’t like something they saw from Ruiz during his early work in camp (he was away from the team for more than a week while dealing with COVID-19-related symptoms, but did not test positive).

That’s all fine, but it’s not clear that Franco is an upgrade over Ruiz. He most likely is at the plate — Franco’s career 91 wRC+ outpaces Ruiz’s 77 wRC+ — and his highs have been higher than what Ruiz has provided. But Franco is also more boom-or-bust. His last four seasons serve as a good example:

2017: 76 wRC+ (623 PA)
2018: 105 wRC+ (465 PA)
2019: 70 wRC+ (428 PA)
2020: 106 wRC+ (243 PA)

Ruiz, meanwhile, improved slightly at the dish in his second season in Baltimore, seeing a wRC+ uptick from 81 to 90. It was due entirely to an increase in power (.143 ISO in 2019 to .205 in 2020), but while the more frequent home runs were nice, his on-base percentage dropped 20 points and he walked less and struck out more. The improved power may also have been a mirage, as his .276 xwOBA finished in the bottom 8 percent of all batters.

With the glove, though, the advantage goes to Ruiz. That’s not to suggest he’s a Gold Glove candidate, but he’s been about average while Franco, with a much larger sample size, has graded as a negative defender at the hot corner.

Let’s look at their entire body of work at third base:

Ruiz: 3.1 UZR, -2 DRS, -2 OAA (1,635 innings)
Franco: -8.2 UZR, -37 DRS, -19 OAA (5,637.2 innings)

As the Statcast data shows, Franco’s struggles have been on balls to his right, while Ruiz hasn’t fared well when coming in on the ball. To Franco’s credit, he was decent defensively in the truncated 2020 season while Ruiz took a step back, but there just isn’t much to look forward to about a potential full season of Franco at third base.

The ZiPS projection system, developed by Dan Szymborski and available at FanGraphs, favors Ruiz over Franco because of those defensive issues. It projects each to finish with about the same offensive output (84 wRC+ for Ruiz and 83 for Franco) in a similar number of plate appearances, but Ruiz projects to finish with 1.2 wins above replacement while Franco comes in at 0.4. Nothing is set in stone here, but there’s real reason for concern.

All told, we’re talking about two stopgap options at third base for a not very good Orioles team. Neither is the team’s third baseman of the future. That designation goes to Gunnar Henderson, Rylan Bannon, Coby Mayo or someone else. The O’s have some options there, and they’re getting closer every day.

There’s nothing wrong with a team taking a shot on a new player. Weird and wonderful things can happen in just one season — just look at what Iglesias did with the O’s in 2020. But even though it didn’t turn out that way, the O’s had some comfort in Iglesias being, at minimum, a quality defender. That reliable feeling isn’t there with Franco, so there’s some risk in his defense hurting a pitching staff that’s going to feature a number of young arms. The O’s are not going to be good, so the fewer free outs they hand the other team, the better.

If you’re not excited about Franco being a modest improvement over Ruiz, you can take solace in knowing that younger, more interesting infielders will be on the way soon. It just may not happen until the summer.

Matt Kremnitzer

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