Royals manager Ned Yost possesses an unyielding faith in his players, a trait that has guided a managerial career that includes two American League pennants and a World Series title. Yost would likely rather go a year without a quiet afternoon on the tractor than publicly criticize a player.
So on Monday afternoon, the Royals demoted designated hitter Jorge Soler to Class AAA Omaha and Yost proceeded to compare him to Twins third baseman Miguel Sano, a 24-year-old slugger who is batting .270 with a .368 on-base percentage and 21 homers this season.
This was not the first time Yost had used the comparison. It had also come earlier this month, when the Twins were visiting Kauffman Stadium. On Monday, he reiterated his point: Soler can be a “Sano-type player,” Yost said. But for now, his struggles at the plate had depressed his value as a regular player, so the Royals sent him back to Omaha to get consistent at-bats.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Yost said, “for him to be playing once or twice a week when he can be playing every day.”
Soler was batting .139 (five for 36) with one home run since returning to the major leagues in late June. The Royals recalled outfielder Billy Burns to offer more versatility to the 25-man roster.
For Soler, the demotion offers the latest setback in a turbulent first season in Kansas City. Acquired in a December trade that sent closer Wade Davis to the Chicago Cubs, Soler sustained a strained oblique strain during the final week of spring training and scuffled in his first stint with the Royals. Outside of a successful stretch at Omaha, he has not appeared comfortable at the plate.
As the Royals opened a four-game series against Detroit, the struggles of Soler shone a light on the Royals’ most apparent offensive weakness in 2017: The designated hitter spot.
Brandon Moss entered Monday batting just .191 with a .261 on-base percentage and 10 homers. Soler could not prove himself as a more capable alternative. As a whole, the Royals’ designated hitters are batting just .210 with 15 homers this season. Their collective .680 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) ranks last in the American League.
For now, Yost indicated that Moss will return to full-time duty at the position. The team will still utilize the role as a way to give half days off to its regulars. But Moss will command most of the at-bats. The Royals still view him as a potentially valuable offensive player, despite a slump that has bled into a fourth month.
“He’s a guy that’s intriguing because if he gets hot, he can carry you,” Yost said. “He can hit a bunch of home runs.”
Moss posted a .784 OPS and clubbed 28 homers in 128 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016. He has not approached the production this season, though he has shown a rare ability to handle left-handed pitching, batting .367 with with two homers and two doubles in 33 plate appearances against lefties.
The Royals’ faith in Moss can, in part, be tied to their financial commitment. When the season is over, they will still owe him $8.25 million of a two-year, $12 million deal signed before spring training. Yet his continued opportunities may also stem from his own track record and a lack of suitable alternatives.
The Royals will monitor the trade market for available bats in the coming weeks before the July 31st deadline. Detroit’s J.D. Martinez is expected to be among the most coveted offensive players on the market, while options such as the Mets’ Curtis Granderson or Jay Bruce could also be available. All three players will be free agents after the season and similar options could surface as more teams commit to selling. Yet industry observers point to a trade market that, at the moment, has considerably more potential buyers than sellers, which has slowed the movement.
Any potential search for another bat could face other challenges. The Royals’ farm system remains thin and they opened the season with a club-record payroll of close to $146 million. They could prefer to allocate their resources toward a possible reinforcement for the starting rotation. Any acquisition, whether a starter, reliever or a veteran bat, likely would require the addition of payroll. Any move would further gut their minor-league talent pool.
“It makes perfect sense to evaluate the market, which is what we will do,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said last weekend. “But I feel like this team is good enough to win.”
For now, the Royals will wait on their internal options at designated hitter, hoping that Moss finds his stroke. They will wait on Soler, too, hoping the production will be there in the future. In the winter, they spent one season of Davis, an All-Star closer, on four seasons of Soler, a 25-year-old with upside. For now, they’re still waiting on the return.
“It’s just been a struggle to get going,” Yost said. “He just doesn’t look comfortable in the box. He just hasn’t been able to get on a role up here. We were hoping after his stint down there where he was hitting .320 and hitting homers that he could get up here and get comfortable. But we just need him to get at-bats.”