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The Orioles are seriously pursuing Maikel Franco. What would his signing mean for the club? | ANALYSIS

Even at this stage of spring training, the Orioles seem to be unsatisfied with their current roster and are looking to add.

After reports from multiple outlets, including MLB Network, over the past week regarding the Orioles’ courtship of free-agent third baseman Maikel Franco, the team remains in serious pursuit of him, according to an industry source.

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Franco, 28, spent 2020 with the Kansas City Royals, hitting .278/.321/.457 with eight home runs and 38 RBIs in 60 games. He debuted with the Philadelphia Phillies at age 21 in 2014 and spent the rest of the decade as their everyday third baseman.

While it could be days before a deal is finalized once agreed upon, Franco’s addition could enhance the team’s corner bat mix as the season approaches. It’s an area the Orioles aren’t necessarily light in, but is one that could benefit from another piece to provide as many options for manager Brandon Hyde as possible come Opening Day on April 1.

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Here’s what a potential Franco signing would mean for the Orioles should an agreement be finalized this week.

No easy path to at-bats for corner bats

Since Chris Davis went down on the first day of spring with a back strain and hasn’t played since, the Orioles have had a pretty straightforward path for at-bats for their corner infielders and outfielders.

Trey Mancini and Rio Ruiz were locked in at first base and third base, respectively, with Ryan Mountcastle the presumptive regular left fielder, Anthony Santander the everyday right fielder and DJ Stewart in the mix for some corner outfield starts when one of the starters is the designated hitter — a role Stewart could easily make his own.

And while Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays can both play center field, the Orioles’ defense would probably be better if Hays was in a corner spot and someone else served as the designated hitter.

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All of those options, though, leave the Orioles a bit lacking against left-handed pitching in a division that could feature as many as 10 left-handed starters to begin the season. Since the start of 2019, the left-handed-hitting Ruiz has hit right-handed pitching slightly better than lefties.

Of that group of existing Orioles corner bats, only Santander and Mancini have aggregate weight runs created (wRC+) of over 100 — which is league-average — against lefties in the past two seasons.

Franco, a right-handed hitter, has hit left-handers much better over the past few years; he has an. .804 OPS and a 98 wRC+ against lefties since the start of 2019 compared with a .709 OPS and a 78 wRC+ against righties.

It might end up being too simple to say Franco could sign with the Orioles for a straight left-right platoon at third base. What’s clear, though, is that the team isn’t sold on the right-handed-hitting options it does have and is looking to bolster that. They could be a better team against lefties by adding Franco.

A challenge for Rio Ruiz

If Ruiz, who was claimed off waivers during the 2019 winter meetings, was the best version of himself more often, this might not be happening. He hit well at the end of the 2019 season, homering seven times with a .779 OPS after returning from the minors in August, and homered six times with a .914 OPS in the first 14 games of 2020 before falling off.

Perhaps the Orioles’ interest in Franco comes down to adding another corner bat with the likelihood that Davis won’t be available to start the season. Ruiz’s recent illness put a spotlight on how limited their options would be without him at third base.

But Ruiz, who enjoyed pretty much everyday status at third base in 2020 after platooning with Hanser Alberto in 2019, should probably take it as a sign that it’s time to take that next step while he still can. Ruiz is a popular player in the Orioles’ clubhouse and by virtue of having played two seasons with the team is probably one of the most visible players to fans.

A move like this, however, would signal that the Orioles aren’t completely sold on more being in the tank for Ruiz.

A break from business as usual

To this point, the Orioles have relied on waiver claims and short-term free agents to paper over some of the gaps on their roster until young players they have tried to develop are ready to take over.

That’s why Dwight Smith Jr. was the regular left fielder until Mountcastle was deemed sufficiently prepared last summer, and why veterans such as Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone were in the rotation until the Orioles brought up Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer to take their places last year.

Absent prospects being ready, though, this isn’t a team that’s necessarily in the business of upgrades. Those playing well can be traded, but it’s rare for this version of the Orioles to go out and get a player who could be an upgrade over one of the rebuilding core they’ve gotten by with for so long.

With Ruiz having his moments but not totally taking hold of the job, the Orioles are taking a rare step (at least for a team with their chances of being competitive) of trying for a short-term elevation of their roster.

Another possible trade asset

Franco, with over five years of major league service time, would be the definition of a rental. He seems like a lock to reach six years of service time and thus free agency after this season, so the Orioles would only be on the hook for this year’s salary.

And though the Orioles’ best trade returns have come for players with more than one year of club control — think Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, and Miguel Castro — Franco is another player who could be attractive come the July trade deadline if he plays well.

It’s not likely the Orioles will get a big asset in return. But they’ve shown they value being able to supplement their growing Latin American prospect base with young players from other teams in these trades, and at the very least, moving Franco could at least allow them to do that.

It might be a case where the Orioles’ main trade talks will be around popular, more productive players such as Santander as the season progresses. But Franco, Freddy Galvis and maybe pitchers Félix Hernández or Matt Harvey could be easy to shop on the rental market.

A reminder that prospect status isn’t everything

After Franco debuted with the Phillies at age 21 in 2014, Baseball America rated him the 17th-best prospect in baseball. His career didn’t pan out as one would hope after such a lofty ranking.

His only season with an OPS over .800 came in an 80-game stint in 2015, and despite hitting over 20 home runs in each of the next three seasons, Franco failed to develop into a viable third baseman and didn’t do enough with his bat to cover for those deficiencies.

That’s how a player ultimately doesn’t get tendered a contract two years running, and remains available at this stage of the spring for a team like the Orioles to sign.

But for a team that has so much wrapped up in player development and building its own talent base, Franco’s own trajectory shows there are plenty of pitfalls between the promise of a young player and the actualization as a successful major leaguer.

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