Sam Mellinger

Jorge Soler will break the Royals’ home run record. Then comes a critical choice

The record will fall, and probably soon. Maybe in the next week or so. Might take until next month. Could be this weekend.

The Royals’ home run record stood three decades before Mike Moustakas’ accidental 2017 season, and now before Moose’s record of 38 is old enough to be potty-trained it is set to be lapped by Jorge Soler — currently at 35 with 42 games to play.

“The thing that’s so encouraging, so exciting — he still has so much room to grow,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.

All of this will present the organization with an important decision, one that will help shape the future of a possible winner and be informed by sport and market conditions outside their control.

Basically, this: Soler is on pace to boatrace the franchise record with 47 home runs.

So what happens next?

The answer is complicated, and club officials are working through those options. Soler’s contract gives him $4 million next year and the option of opting out of the same salary in 2020 for arbitration. After that, he’ll become a free agent ahead of his age-30 season.

The Royals will approach Soler about an extension this winter, according to a source. Extensions are always complicated, but this one will be particularly so.

When the Royals acquired him for Wade Davis, general manager Dayton Moore said Soler had more raw power than anyone in the organization since he was hired in 2006. So this home run binge isn’t a fluke, but before this season Soler’s career high stood at 12. Most of the blame goes to injuries, but teams are often hesitant to hand large long-term contracts to players with an extensive injury history. This is only the beginning of the complications.

The Royals place a premium on athleticism and have long been comfortable building without traditional power hitters. The 2015 World Series champions finished next-to-last among American League teams in home runs but featured one of the best collection of defensive outfielders in recent baseball history.

The plan for the next potential winner has been similar. One reason the Royals remained loyal to Bubba Starling through his struggles in the minor leagues is a defensive profile that scouts have long considered elite. Prospects Khalil Lee and Nick Heath headline the next wave of coverage.

Committing to Soler comes with obvious benefits, but it also means some sacrifice — range in right field or an open DH spot that will be more important as Sal Perez returns from injury and turns 30 next year.

The team could also explore a trade.

Kauffman Stadium features more outfield square footage than any ballpark in the American League. Only Comerica and Fenway are deeper to center. None match Kauffman in both gaps.

Soler has hit 21 of his 35 home runs on the road, in just four more at-bats. Scouts and advanced metrics agree that Soler’s outfield range is below average. Kauffman’s dimensions suppress Soler’s greatest skill and amplify perhaps his worst.

In that way, Soler is the ideal trade candidate: under contract for less-than-market value, with a skill-set that should play better somewhere else.

Soler generated mild interest before the July 31 trade deadline, but opponents will likely take a harder look this winter.

But whether it’s by a contract extension or trade, the process of determining Soler’s baseball value will be difficult.

The Royals have existed for half a century and he is on pace to push the home record by nearly 25%. This is Bob Beamon stuff. The American League is stocked with power hitters and only Mike Trout has hit more. Soler would hit in the middle of any lineup.

But it’s also true that more hitters are hitting more home runs than any other time in baseball history. That’s true league-wide (the all-time mark is set to be passed by some 600 homers) and individually (last year 100 hit at least 20; this year 134 are on that pace).

With more home runs being hit by more players, each home run and the skill required to do so might be less valuable.

Yost called that thinking “bilge” — nonsense, if you’re like me and hadn’t heard that one before.

“To devalue it, that’s crazy,” he said. “I’d like to meet the people who ... no, I wouldn’t.”

His point is that the home run is still the single most valuable play in baseball, a fact that is beyond debate. But the Royals have built without a traditional cleanup hitter before, and home runs are being valued less in objective terms.

Chris Carter wasn’t tendered after leading the NL in home runs two years ago, and Moustakas has signed a pair of one-year contracts since his record-breaking season in Kansas City. No two situations are identical, but the trend is there.

The Royals, then, have a lot to work through. Doing nothing with Soler would mean likely losing him to free agency before the next push is fully formed. In that scenario, the best they could hope for is a compensation draft pick through the qualifying offer process.

So with this winter as the most logical moment to sign him long-term or trade for younger talent, the club is essentially forced to make a decision a year or more before its next wave plays in the big leagues.

The parts are still moving, then, nearly as fast as Soler is approaching this record. His future with the club will likely be set this winter, among the first advanced decisions that will determine what the Royals look like when they’re ready to win again.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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