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The Royals’ Commitment to Ryan O’Hearn Is Puzzling — At Best

The Royals' refusal to cleanly part ways with O'Hearn says a lot about them as a franchise.

On Aug. 17 of this year, I wrote an article questioning whether it would be worthwhile for the Kansas City Royals to keep first baseman/designated hitter/outfielder Ryan O'Hearn around in 2022. At the time, he was posting a .240/.273/.427 line with a .700 OPS. He looked far from an everyday player, but also not quite an unplayable one. I concluded back then that while he simply cannot be a starter for a winning team, perhaps stashing him on the bench and using him sparingly can still see him bring a bit of value.

After that point, he hit .185/.254/.215 (good for a .469 OPS) and was one of the worst hitters in all of baseball for the final month-and-a-half of the 2021 campaign. The deadline for MLB franchises to non-tender their arbitration-eligible players was Tuesday evening and among those receiving that designation, O'Hearn was not among them.

So, what does that mean? It means the Royals tendered a contract to O'Hearn and both sides now have an extended deadline to come to an agreement on a contract extension (for one year or for multiple years) to avoid arbitration. If neither side can agree on terms, the arbitration process kicks in next year. In that case, MLB Trade Rumors' projected 2022 salary for O'Hearn is $1.4M. 

Could O'Hearn stick around for a while, then be DFA'd after Spring Training? Sure. Could he be a part of an imminent trade package? Absolutely. With that said, it's hard to see the Royals finding a potential trade partner for him and if he's around strictly for competition in the spring, that brings into question the organization's thought process here. There's also one more scenario that, despite how simple it may seem to plenty of people, needs to be brought up.

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The Royals very well could believe in O'Hearn turning things around. They may value the leadership and professionalism he brings to the clubhouse. Perhaps they think he's worth keeping around, for multiple reasons, and they chose to do so because that's simply how they see the situation. The data doesn't agree with that line of thinking, though.

When you look at O'Hearn's career numbers, it's easy to see that he isn't an everyday MLB player. His combination of not-so-great pop (ISOs of .174, .106 and .144 after a .336 in his rookie season) and a tendency to whiff (27.2% strikeout percentage) makes him a net negative at the plate in a large sample size. The pinch-hitter argument is easy to poke holes in due to the aforementioned flaws in his game, as well as an overall inability to get on base (.294 OBP — .268 in 2021). The case for potential can no longer be used, either. O'Hearn has nearly 1,000 plate appearances under his belt and will turn 29 years old about halfway through next season.

What about defense? There isn't a ton that O'Hearn brings to the table there, either. FanGraphs has him graded as a negative defender at first base and only a slight positive in right field. In terms of Baseball Savant's Outs Above Average, he's a negative at both spots. Had O'Hearn been a known commodity as a defensive stud, perhaps one could contend that a stellar glove is worthy of playing in exchange for struggles at the plate. That isn't the case, though.

Finally, factor in the current state of the Royals. In regards to the DH, several players are slated to compete for reps there. At first base, Carlos Santana is already entrenched and prospect Nick Pratto could be on the way soon. In right field, Kyle Isbel may emerge in 2022 and if he doesn't, names such as Hunter Dozier, Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi and even catching prospect MJ Melendez have been tossed around for reps in the outfield. The Royals already have or will soon have a mix of rising prospects, productive veterans and possible bounce-back candidates scrapping for at-bats and innings at every spot O'Hearn plays. Keeping him in the mix only complicates the situation.

Of course, it is entirely possible that the Royals are merely doing their due diligence while they round out the rest of their roster or pursue a transaction elsewhere. Unless O'Hearn is being added to a trade package, though, it doesn't make a ton of sense why the club brought him back. He's no longer young enough to offer hope for improvement — at the plate or in the field — and there's no shortage of cooks already in the kitchen. The Royals had an opportunity to cut ties with O'Hearn, and they passed on it. Will that come back to haunt them later on? For an organization that prides itself on striving to compete, it very well could.

Read More: Royals’ Lack of Free Agent Spending Is a Double-Edged Sword