Ryan O’Hearn isn’t a name Yankee fans may be familiar with, as he has struggled over the last three seasons to earn a regular role in the Royals' lineup despite a myriad of opportunities. His acquisition wouldn’t really qualify as breaking news either, but the power-hitting first baseman/right fielder represents a low-risk or no-risk buy for someone who showed promise when he first came up.
Working backward, the Royals designated O’Hearn for assignment on December 28th to make room on the 40-man roster, but the organization has shown it wants to keep him around. My guess is they’re trying to sneak him through waivers and stash him in the minors.
Earlier in the offseason, the front office and O’Hearn agreed to a $1.4 million salary in order to avoid arbitration, as the former eighth-round pick heads into his fifth year in the big leagues, his fourth full year of service time. With promising options like Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino, O’Hearn has fallen hard in the pecking order, and Kansas can’t really afford to give him regular opportunities, and they’re hoping he can reset in the minors.
Way back in 2018, O’Hearn came up and mashed through 170 plate appearances, slugging a whopping .597, and accruing a 153 wRC+. Granted, it is a very small sample size, and O’Hearn has fallen off a cliff, failing to establish himself over the 901 plate appearances he received since then, spanned through 2019-22.
Last season, O’Hearn showed some intriguing signs even though the final results were extremely underwhelming, the 29-year-old left-handed hitter had a 33.1-percent hard contact rate, finishing in the top 30 in all of baseball (27th). However, with an incredibly mediocre 26.3-percent fly-ball rate, he didn’t do much damage with it.
There is something to work with here, though — if the right organization gets ahold of him, and Brian Cashman has a track record of seeking out these types of players. Through his first three seasons, O’Hearn had a walk rate well above 10 percent, and his strikeout rate wasn’t outrageous for a power hitter, but as he cut down his strikeout rate in the past two years, his walk rate also plummeted, and that something that needs to be fixed. O’Hearn will never be the guy that hits for even an OK average, so he needs an above-average walk rate to succeed in the majors.
O’Hearn still has a minor league option, so as long as the team has the room to keep him on the 40-man roster, this acquisition should come at virtually no cost. They could even have him work on adjustments in Triple-A to see if they could unlock something while providing first base depth beyond just DJ LeMahieu.
An interesting nugget to add here that wouldn’t necessarily affect the Yankees' move after O’Hearn, but is that before the new CBA, arbitration agreements between a team and player could be nullified before spring training. Now, that’s no longer the case. O’Hearn can reject an assignment to the minors if he clears waivers, but then, under those circumstances, he would be required to forfeit salary, which isn’t likely.
It’s clear that this isn’t a very promising move, but if it was, it wouldn’t be so easy. There is a reason why these guys are on waivers, and the path to improvement may not be as tortuous as we initially think.