A little over a year ago, the Royals agreed to a deal with the Cubs to send them Wade Davis in exchange for Jorge Soler. The return was underwhelming at the time after what we saw relievers were traded for during the 2016 season, but I thought that in terms of pure value, it could work out fine enough for the Royals. Through one year, it’s been an absolute disaster. At this point, the Royals would have been far better off giving Davis a qualifying offer and then getting a pick directly after the first round in exchange for him signing his three year, $52 million deal in Colorado.
Thankfully, this story isn’t over. Yes, Soler hit an absolutely embarrassing .144/.245/.258 with a .172 TAv. He was worth -0.9 WARP. He was horrendous. He was so bad that the major league ready outfielder the team acquired in exchange for one of the best closers in the world only came to the plate 110 times for the big league club because of being demoted to Triple-A. The good news is that he did what he was supposed to do in the minors. He posted a .952 OPS with a 15 percent walk rate and a not-horrible 25 percent strikeout rate.
Maybe more importantly, because of all that time in the minors, he is now under team control for an extra season. Yes, he has a deal that only runs through 2020 (at a guaranteed $12 million), but there are no provisions in his contract that allow him to become a free agent following that deal if he doesn’t have enough service time to become a free agent, so he’ll be slotted back into arbitration for 2021. That means when the Royals traded Davis for Soler and his four years of control, they didn’t lose one of those years in 2017. At least they have that.
And that’s where the optimism comes in, if he can make good on his promise. Remember that heading into the 2017 season, Soler had hit .258/.328/.434, which was good for a 106 OPS+. Prior to the 2017 season, Eric Hosmer had hit .277/.335/.428, which was good for a 107 OPS+. That’s obviously a terribly crude way to look at the two because there are plate appearance differences and other things, but one guy is looked at as an absolute disaster while another has been rumored to be in possession of a seven-year contract offer presumably worth well over $100 million. Again, I’m not saying Soler is as good as Hosmer or even as good of a bet, but it’s interesting how different the perception is from one player to the next.
Before the 2017 season, I said that the three keys to the Royals season were Nate Karns, Joakim Soria and Soler. If they performed well, the Royals would be just fine. If not, they’d probably be a middling team. Karns was good enough, but didn’t make it to June. Soria was better than you think and Soler was a disaster. And the Royals were a middling team. The funny thing is that heading into 2018, it looks like Karns and Soler are again going to be keys to whether or not this team succeeds or at least exceeds low expectations (I still think Soria is traded).
If you’re like most (me included) and think the 2018 season is probably a lost one regardless, it doesn’t matter too much, but I’m really interested in seeing what Soler can do in his second year with the organization. I know I’ve talked about this a lot, but multiple people were convinced Soler would struggle in his first year with the Royals before getting on track in year two. I’m guessing they weren’t expecting the struggles he had, but we don’t know if they were right yet.
What I like is that he was a guy who swung at less than 25 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. I like that he hit the ball hard when he actually made contact with an average exit velocity of 89 MPH with roughly ⅓ of his batted balls coming at 95 MPH or harder.
I don’t like that he went 6 for 39 on sliders and curves with 20 strikeouts and one extra base hit. He swung and missed more than half the time he swung at those pitches. The cutter wasn’t his friend either, going 2 for 12 on it with two singles and six strikeouts. The curve and slider I get, but his career numbers against cutters are much better (.293 with a .586 SLG and just 10 strikeouts in 58 at bats). I think the big issue against basically any pitch that moved is that he was almost too patient and then when he was backed into a corner and had to swing, he couldn’t make contact. None of the plate discipline or batted ball stats in his favor will matter if he continues to swing through these pitches. That’s just some of the bad of Soler offensively.
Defensively, he’s never going to get confused for a gold glover, which means the offense has to come around for him to be valuable. I think there’s more to him than the absolutely abysmal showing he had last season in the outfield, but I’m not sure how much more. I will say that the defensive numbers are better in left field for him than in right, but that doesn’t mean they’re good. Plus, the Royals have a pretty good defensive left fielder right now, and if neither hits, at least get the defense out there. I’m rambling a little bit, but the point is that I think he can be passable if the bat is there.
And that’s just it. Soler is absolutely a key for the 2018 team, at least as it is currently constructed. The rotation right now is decent enough. The bullpen has a little upside if a couple guys come around. The offense needs a thumper. Sure, they need a lot more than just a thumper, but getting that would help to start to set the rest. It’s going to take an awful lot to get the 2018 Royals to even the fringes of contention, and it’s going to take an awful lot to make the trade of Wade Davis look good for the organization. The latter happening would certainly help at least get the former a little closer. I’m not counting on it, but maybe, just maybe, Soler’s second chance will be a little more fun to watch than part one.