The Royals have made their signing of right-hander Jordan Lyles official, announcing the move today. To make room on the 40-man roster, first baseman/outfielder Ryan O’Hearn was designated for assignment.
O’Hearn, 29, burst onto the scene with an incredible debut in 2018. He was selected to the club’s roster at the end of July and got into 44 games over the latter months of that campaign. He hit 12 home runs in that brief spell and produced a batting line of .262/.353/.597, with his 153 wRC+ indicating he was 53% better than league average in that time.
However, the subsequent four seasons have increasingly made that look like a mirage. From the beginning of 2019 to the present, O’Hearn has hit 26 home runs in 298 games and slashed .211/.282/.351, producing a wRC+ of just 68. That production was 32% below the league average hitter in that time but was especially disappointing given his defensive limitations. O’Hearn is primarily a first baseman who has occasionally seen time in the outfield corners. Since those positions come with higher expectations for offensive production, a tepid showing like O’Hearn’s was increasingly untenable.
It doesn’t seem as though the organization has completely given up on O’Hearn turning things around and becoming a valuable contributor again, as they’ve already tendered him a contract for 2023. At the non-tender deadline in mid-November, he and the club avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $1.4MM salary for the upcoming campaign. In previous years, arbitration salaries were not guaranteed until the end of Spring Training, giving the club some wiggle room to cut the player before the season began and only pay out a portion of the deal. However, under the new CBA, arbitration salaries are guaranteed as long as the two sides don’t go to a hearing.
The Royals will now have one week to trade O’Hearn or try to pass him through waivers. Since O’Hearn has more than three years of MLB service time, he would have the right to reject an outright assignment in the event he cleared waivers. However, he lacks the five years of service time necessary to both reject an outright assignment and retain his salary for the upcoming season, meaning he would have to leave that $1.4MM on the table in order to become a free agent. Given his struggles in recent years, it seems possible that he will clear waivers and accept an outright assignment, sticking around the organization with a slightly higher salary than a traditional depth piece. Vinnie Pasquantino seems to have taken over the first base job in Kansas City with MJ Melendez, Hunter Dozier, Nate Eaton and Nick Pratto options for designated hitter duty. O’Hearn could work his way back into the mix if he shows improved form and an injury creates an opportunity.