Franmil Reyes had a solid four-year run from 2018 through 2021. He struck out at an unhealthy 29.5% rate, but he also walked in 9% of his plate appearances. He hit 92 home runs in 529 games and produced a batting line of .260/.325/.503. That production was 19% above league average, as evidenced by his 119 wRC+, a figure that placed him in the top 65 among qualified league hitters. He was also fairly consistent, with his wRC+ never slipping below 111 in any season of that stretch and topping out at 129.
He qualified for arbitration for the first time after that 2021 season and agreed to a $4.55MM salary with the Guardians. Unfortunately, his consistent offensive production got away from him for the first time in 2022. His strikeout rate ticked up to 33.2% while his walk rate dipped to 6.3%. His power also seemed to diminish, as he hit just 14 home runs on the year after being around a 30-per-year pace in the earlier portion of his career. He finished the season with a slash line of .221/.273/.365 and a wRC+ of 80, indicating he was 20% below the league average hitter.
That swoon at the plate was untenable for a player like Reyes since his bat is his only carrying tool. He doesn’t bring anything in the speed or defense departments. He has managed six stolen bases in his career but his sprint speed was in the 20th percentile among qualified players last year. Defensively, he got over 500 innings in the outfield in 2018 and 2019 but got poor results and has been sent out to the grass less often recently. He spent less than 100 innings out there in both 2021 and 2022.
Given his one-dimensional profile, he needs to be clicking at the plate to be valuable. His struggles were strong enough last year that the Guardians put him on waivers in August. The Cubs put in a claim and let him play out the string for them, but he was outrighted at season’s end and elected free agency.
There’s no denying that the 2022 season was rough, but it’s possible it was merely a blip. He still clobbered the ball despite his struggles, with Statcast placing him in the 92nd percentile in terms of average exit velocity last year. He also ranked in the 85th percentile in terms of maximum exit velocity, 79th in hard hit rate and 80th in terms of barrel rate. It seems the tools are still there for some team that can find a better way of utilizing them.
It’s possible that the league changed its plan of attack against Reyes. According to Statcast, 33.7% of the pitches he saw in 2021 were breaking balls. That shot up to 40% in 2022, with fastballs and offspeed pitches coming across less often. Reyes posted a batting average of .219 against those breaking pitches in 2021 with a .521 slugging percentage, but those numbers dropped to .191 and .321 last year.
That change in approach could have been responsible for his increased strikeouts. His chase percentage went from 25.8% to 28.4%. Not only did he chase more, he did worse when he did. His chase contact rate went from 49.5% in 2021 to to just 36% last year. That came despite the fact that 50.4% of the pitches he saw were in the zone, a slight increase from the 48.1% rate of the year before. He also went up hacking throughout the year as his first pitch swing rate went to 34.5%, a few ticks above his 30% rate from the year before and the 29.5% league average. Perhaps he was getting more breaking balls to begin at-bats or he merely went up looking to smash a fastball before he got deeper into the count. Pitchers also threw 61.3% of first pitches in the zone, an uptick on the 55.4% clip from the year before. So, more first-pitch strikes, more first-pitch swings, but more strikeouts and less power.
While all this led to a pretty gloomy year for Reyes, it’s possible that he could adjust to this new plan of attack and get back to the hitter he was before. As mentioned, the tools still seem to be there in terms of crushing the ball. If he can alter his approach and get his strikeouts down a few points, it’s possible he could again be a feared middle-of-the-order slugger. The fact that Reyes is primarily a designated hitter surely limits his market, but there could still be fits. Even if Reyes can’t find a full-time job, serving as a bench bat and/or the short side of a platoon could be an option. He was equally poor against both righties and lefties in 2022 but has been stronger with the platoon advantage over his career, posting a 125 wRC+ against southpaws and a 104 otherwise.
For a rebuilding team like the Reds, they have a handful of lefties in their corner outfield/designated hitter mix, including TJ Friedl and Jake Fraley. While Joey Votto is questionable for Opening Day, that might leave first base open for players like Wil Myers and Tyler Stephenson, perhaps leaving some at-bats for Reyes. The Tigers currently have a strongly left-handed outfield with Austin Meadows, Riley Greene, Akil Baddoo and Kerry Carpenter all hitting from that side. Adding Reyes would further squeeze out Miguel Cabrera in what could be his final season, but he’s probably not ticketed for full-time duty anyway. The Rangers don’t really have a strict designated hitter right now, with Mitch Garver potentially playing there when healthy and not catching. Otherwise, left-hander Brad Miller and his career 67 wRC+ against lefties could be the frontrunner. The Diamondbacks have a lot of lefties and added Evan Longoria as a veteran righty. He’ll likely be DHing while splitting third base with Josh Rojas, but one injury elsewhere on the diamond means they’re both ticketed for everyday infield duty. The A’s have very few players locked into jobs, and some of their most-established guys are lefties like Seth Brown, Tony Kemp and Jace Peterson.
Nelson Cruz, another bat-only player, recently said he had received offers for 2023. He has a more impressive track record than Reyes but he’s going to turn 43 in the upcoming season and is also coming off a down year. Reyes will be turning 28 in July and shouldn’t cost much. He was projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for an arbitration salary of $6MM before being cut loose by the Cubs. The fact that Reyes cleared waivers and was outrighted suggests that no one wanted him at that price point and he could be signed for something beneath that figure. He could also be retained via arbitration for 2024 in the event he has a bounceback season, since he’s currently between four and five years of MLB service time. He even has options and could be sent down to the minors, though players who reach five years of service can’t be optioned without their consent. Reyes is at 4.115 and would cross that five-year threshold after a couple of months in the majors, since a new “year” starts at 172 days.