Photo credit: Bill Streicher, USA Today Sports

Comfort In Utility

It’s no secret that the Royals need some offensive help next season. There are reporters reporting about that very thing right now, as the Winter Meetings continue. The team could use some help at a few positions, and while it’s possible to acquire one player at each of their positions of need, it might be easier to go after some players who can play multiple positions around the diamond. Not at the same time, though. That would be a terrible defensive alignment.

Super utility players are all the rage these days, and the Royals are in a position to give one such player a full season’s worth of plate appearances. They have a handful of players who will need a day off every week, and they might employ a rotating designated hitter slot, so having a guy capable of moving around would be perfect for the roster. They do have Whit Merrifield currently, but if they are looking for a bit more offense in that role, they might look to the following trio of candidates.

Josh Harrison

There have been some rumblings that the Pirates are willing to listen to trade offers for their Josh-Of-All-Trades. After inking their super utility man to a $27.3 million contract prior to the 2015 season, Harrison’s bat has faded, and the emergence of Jung-ho Kang, along with some promising infielders coming through the system, have made the 29-year-old expendable.

He had a terrific .305 True Average in 2014, but followed it up with a .264 in 2015, and .254 last season. The biggest difference has been in the power department, as his isolated slugging percentage has hovered just above .100 each of the last two years. Some of that may have been caused by a thumb injury that required surgery in July of 2015, so perhaps being farther removed from that could be a big boost to his offensive production.

Harrison is due $18 million over the next two years, with a pair of team options totaling $22 million after that. Were he to bounce back, he’d be incredibly valuable. He’s generally regarded as an above average fielder, particularly on the infield. He spent 2016 between second base and right field, both positions of need for the Royals. He makes a ton of contact and doesn’t draw many walks, which means he’s obligated to play for the Royals at some point. That point could be 2017.

The Pirates would be selling low on Harrison at this point, and if they just want to get out from his salary, it’s possible the prospect cost wouldn’t be as high.

Yangervis Solarte

First and foremost, we have to recognize the excellence of Solarte’s name. The Royals could double their number of players whose first name begins with a “Y,” and any time you have that opportunity, you can’t let it slip away. In addition to the name, Solarte is a pretty darn good baseball player. He burst on the scene with the Yankees in 2014, hitting .346/.414/.521 in his first 140 plate appearances as a big-leaguer. While he stumbled a bit down the stretch, he still ended the year with almost a .270 TAv, a number he approached in 2015 in San Diego.

In 2016, Solarte broke out in a big way, hitting .286/.341/.467, good enough for a .289 TAv. He hit 15 dingers, while only striking out in 14 percent of his plate appearances. The offense was great, but it was improved defensive metrics that led to a 3.3 WARP season for Solarte. He mostly spent time at third base, but a handful of games at second and first resulted in 7.0 Fielding Runs Above Average, far better than his previous high of -2.2 FRAA in 2014.

There is always skepticism that should accompany defensive metrics that swung so wildly in a one-year sample, so take that number with a large hunk of salt. But even if you regress him back to an average rating, his bat is strong enough to provide significant value. Though his primary position is currently occupied by Mike Moustakas, Solarte’s experience at second base (390.2 big-league innings, to be exact) puts him in better position than Cheslor Cuthbert.

He can do damage from both sides of the plate, a trait that is much-needed in the Royals lineup, and is a better option to give Moose some days off, or half-days off, when needed. Solarte is also arbitration-eligible for the first time this year, with MLB Trade Rumors projecting him for a $2.7 million salary. With three years of team control remaining, he’s an excellent fit on the roster. However, that will likely drive up the cost to acquire him from the Padres.

Andres Blanco

It’s time for the prodigal son to come home. Blanco made his major-league debut for the Royals as a baby-faced 20-year-old in 2004. He’s now a bearded veteran, having bounced between Chicago, Texas, and Philadelphia since 2009. You might not remember Blanco’s first Royals tour with much fondness, as he had a .605 OPS in those first three seasons. However, in his last three seasons, Blanco has basically come out of nowhere to post a .795 OPS, including an incredible 2015 campaign in which he hit .292/.360/.502 with 22 doubles in 261 plate appearances.

Here’s a fun, yet totally useless, statistical comparison for 2014-2016:

Player A: .274/.337/.457
Player B: .273/.367/.428

Player A is Blanco. Player B is Ben Zobrist. Fun, right? Granted, Zobrist has accumulated roughly 1,300 more plate appearances in that time frame, and Blanco called Citizens Bank Park home, as well. Useless, but still fun.

Blanco has been a very solid hitter, though, even accounting for the ballpark. He hits line drives with some authority (another fun fact: Blanco’s average exit velocity last year was 89.7 mph, Zobrist was at 89.8) which allows him to maintain a BABIP around .300, if not higher.

Defensively, Blanco played first, second, third, shortstop, and left field over the last three years, though according to FRAA, he was -2.9 runs below average in the most recent season. At 32 years old, it would be no surprise if his fielding ability went downhill, so that could be concerning. However, he could provide something resembling a league average bat at second base, along with the ability to spell everyone else on the infield, and even Alex Gordon in left.

Ideally, Blanco would be a switch-hitting, older Merrifield with a bit more versatility, and more power. And because he’s not likely to command a large financial commitment, he could easily fit into the Royals tight budget.

In all, I think Blanco would be the most affordable option, while still being productive, although the potential of the other two players is quite a bit higher. Any of them would be a welcome addition to the Royals as they try to get back to the playoffs next season.

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