Royals Sign Bobby Witt Jr. To Franchise-Record Extension

Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Royals committed to the largest contract in franchise history on Monday, signing shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. to an 11-year extension worth $288.8 million. In addition to the guarantee, which runs through the 2034 season, there’s a three-year club option worth $89 million that would bring the total value of the deal to $377 million if exercised. Witt gets some options of his own, with four opt-out opportunities from 2030 to 2033 (the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th seasons of the deal). The 23-year-old Witt had a breakout 2023 season, hitting .276/.319/.495 with 30 homers and 49 stolen bases, good for 5.7 WAR, a mark that ranked third among shortstops behind only Corey Seager and Francisco Lindor.

Suffice it to say, I was floored when news of this deal hit Monday afternoon. Money may not go as far as it used to, but a nearly $300 million commitment is still a pretty large one, with fewer than 20 contracts in league history exceeding $250 million in guaranteed cash. A contract this big would still be a massive story in New York or Los Angeles; in the context of Kansas City baseball, the discovery of extraterrestrial life would probably get booted from the front page in favor of this deal. To say the Royals don’t typically enter into pacts like this would be an epic understatement. We’re talking about a franchise that had never given out even a $100 million contract, with the largest previous deal being Salvador Perez’s 2021 extension that guaranteed him $82 million over four years. Triple the size of Perez’s bag of cash and you still have enough left over to make a stack of hundred dollar bills about 140 feet high.

The Royals picked the right player to play Rich Uncle Pennybags with. Witt is the team’s best young player since Carlos Beltrán about 20 years ago. Back then, the Royals valued him so highly that after agreeing in principle to a three-year, $25 million contract, ownership decided to blow up the deal by trying to pull back a million dollars. A year later, Beltrán was traded in a three-way swap that netted the organization Mark Teahen, Mike Wood, and John Buck, who combined for about seven total WAR as Royals. Two decades later, Beltrán has a good shot at making the Hall of Fame — the biggest obstacle is his involvement in Houston’s trashcananigans — and if he gets a plaque, it may be with NY on the cap, not KC.

Witt isn’t some stathead favorite who snuck in a great season on the back of a spike in walks and crazy one-year defensive numbers (though we’ll get to his defense in a minute) — he was one of the top amateurs in the country, and as a pro prospect, he was one of those rare players who the scouts, the numbers crowd, and the computers all relished. He so electrified the atmosphere in spring training in 2021 that the Royals might have given serious thought to having him basically skip the whole upper minors.

While the Royals were probably right to develop Witt traditionally, assigning him to Double-A in 2021, they cleared the decks to get him a full-time spot in the lineup for 2022. Adalberto Mondesi’s presence resulted in Witt starting off at third base, but Mondesi’s ACL tear opened up the shortstop job, which Witt has mostly held since. A .254/.294/.428 line in his rookie campaign wasn’t phenom material, but as a 22-year-old shortstop, it was still enough to place him around average at the position, with a whole lot of unexplored ceiling remaining. Let’s crank up the time machine and jump back to his long-term ZiPS projections before last season:

ZiPS Projections – Bobby Witt Jr. (Pre-2023)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2023 .265 .313 .462 565 88 150 35 5 22 86 35 134 25 110 -6 2.6
2024 .269 .320 .470 583 94 157 37 4 24 91 39 131 24 114 -5 3.1
2025 .273 .325 .475 598 99 163 38 4 25 95 42 129 24 116 -5 3.4
2026 .276 .329 .482 608 103 168 39 4 26 97 44 127 22 120 -5 3.7
2027 .278 .332 .484 608 104 169 39 4 26 97 45 125 20 121 -5 3.9
2028 .277 .334 .480 602 104 167 38 3 26 95 47 122 18 121 -5 3.8
2029 .277 .333 .478 592 101 164 38 3 25 94 46 121 17 120 -5 3.6
2030 .277 .334 .477 577 98 160 37 3 24 91 45 118 15 120 -6 3.5
2031 .277 .333 .476 578 97 160 37 3 24 91 44 119 14 119 -7 3.3
2032 .276 .332 .473 558 93 154 35 3 23 86 43 116 13 118 -7 3.0
2033 .276 .331 .467 537 87 148 34 3 21 82 41 112 11 117 -8 2.7
2034 .274 .329 .460 511 81 140 32 3 19 76 38 108 9 114 -9 2.3

Assuming the reduced salary figures for his pre-free agency years, ZiPS would have offered 11 years and $282 million to cover Witt through the 2034 season, though without the opt-out years, which do add significant value for most players. And remember, that projection isn’t what the computer suggests knowing how last season went — this is before 2023.

While this projection did a decent job of pegging Witt’s 2023 offense (with a projected OPS+ of 114 vs. an actual OPS+ of 120 and a wRC+ of 115), the computer didn’t see his defensive improvements coming. Originally, it was up for debate whether Witt’s future in the majors would be at shortstop or third base; the Royals originally starting Mondesi at short over Witt wasn’t necessarily some bit of undue veteran deference. Per Statcast’s RAA, Witt improved by 17 runs at shortstop from 2022 to 2023, ranking as the top defensive shortstop in the American League last season. Even Sports Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved, a relative skeptic on Witt, saw a 12-run improvement.

Defense is notoriously hard to measure, but Witt’s numbers improved both in terms of range and avoiding errors. The latter is a relatively small part of defense, but it’s also one that’s much easier to measure, and Witt netted six runs of his improvement just from avoiding errors, going from six non-throwing errors to only two in 2023 despite 50% more innings. Last August, Jake Mintz went into detail on Witt’s defensive instruction at shortstop:

For a crash course in rewiring his defensive approach, Witt’s personal hitting coach Jeremy Isenhower invited well-known private infield coach Nate Trosky out to his hitting facility in Tomball, Texas, for two days of intensive training with the young shortstop. In the nippy mid-December chill, Trosky, an eccentric, fast talking, sun-hat wearing, country-song singing, infield mental skills expert, ran Witt through nearly six straight hours of instruction.
[…]
A close review of Witt’s 2022 errors confirms this hypothesis. Most of his fielding mistakes appeared to stem from a hesitant first step that led to issues with Witt’s timing and rhythm toward the ball. But if Trosky made things incredibly complicated on purpose, Royals first-year infield coach José Alguacil has taken an opposite yet complementary approach.

Let’s spin up the computer one more time and get Witt’s current projection, through the team option years:

ZiPS Projections – Bobby Witt Jr.
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2024 .275 .323 .481 615 97 169 35 7 26 97 41 127 35 119 1 4.1
2025 .279 .329 .488 613 100 171 35 6 27 98 43 122 32 122 1 4.3
2026 .279 .330 .485 612 101 171 35 5 27 98 44 119 30 122 1 4.3
2027 .280 .333 .487 610 102 171 35 5 27 98 46 116 28 123 1 4.4
2028 .281 .335 .484 609 103 171 35 4 27 97 47 115 25 123 1 4.5
2029 .280 .335 .478 607 102 170 34 4 26 95 48 113 23 122 1 4.2
2030 .279 .334 .475 591 98 165 33 4 25 92 46 110 21 121 0 4.0
2031 .279 .333 .476 569 93 159 32 4 24 88 44 107 18 121 -1 3.7
2032 .279 .333 .471 569 92 159 32 4 23 87 44 107 17 119 -2 3.5
2033 .277 .332 .464 541 86 150 30 4 21 81 42 103 15 117 -3 3.1
2034 .276 .330 .458 515 81 142 28 3 20 76 39 99 13 115 -3 2.7
2035 .273 .325 .450 484 73 132 26 3 18 69 36 94 10 112 -4 2.2
2036 .271 .323 .438 447 66 121 24 3 15 62 33 87 8 108 -5 1.6
2037 .268 .322 .431 406 58 109 21 3 13 55 30 80 7 106 -5 1.3

How good is this projection? ZiPS would happily throw another $100 million Witt’s way, meaning the Royals still have a lot of room for this deal to be absolutely fabulous from their point of view. Note that ZiPS isn’t even assuming Witt is a +10 defensive shortstop; 2023 was only enough for it to believe that he’s league average. If I tell ZiPS to assume he’s a -10 shortstop with the glove right now, it still thinks $240 million would be a fair deal. In other words, liking this contract from Kansas City’s perspective does not require you to abandon all skepticism about his defense.

Outside of the bottom line figure, it’s encouraging to see the Royals invest in a young star to this degree. It’s hard to remember now, but at one point, the Royals were one of baseball’s model franchises. Founded with the late Ewing Kauffman as the owner, the Royals managed to pass the .500 mark in just their third year of existence, and following their breakout 1975, they were one of the top teams in baseball for 15 years, a whole generation of baseball:

Franchise Wins, 1975-1989
Team W L WPct
Yankees 1323 1043 .559
Red Sox 1286 1083 .543
Royals 1286 1084 .543
Dodgers 1277 1099 .537
Orioles 1267 1096 .536
Reds 1261 1111 .532
Phillies 1245 1128 .525
Cardinals 1217 1152 .514
Tigers 1214 1156 .512
Astros 1207 1171 .508
Pirates 1198 1167 .507
Brewers 1193 1179 .503
Expos 1187 1184 .501
Angels 1180 1195 .497
Mets 1177 1192 .497
Athletics 1174 1201 .494
Giants 1162 1215 .489
Rangers 1139 1230 .481
Blue Jays 983 1064 .480
White Sox 1131 1233 .478
Twins 1133 1239 .478
Cubs 1125 1241 .475
Padres 1127 1249 .474
Indians 1091 1267 .463
Braves 1045 1319 .442
Mariners 860 1190 .420

Kauffman mostly kept Kansas City’s stars together and put the team’s cash back into the roster. From 1985 to 1994, the Royals were only out of the top 10 in payroll once, in 1992, and even led the league in 1990. But Kauffman passed away in 1993 and so did the team’s Golden Era. Outside of the Royals’ brief period of relevance in the mid-2010s, they spent so much time in the basement that someone should have checked them for a Vitamin D deficiency. The team’s success in 2014-2015 energized the locals for the first time in decades, but the organization showed little inclination to actually try and keep those fans, and as the team’s core aged and/or moved on, so did the KC faithful. Paid attendance in the championship 2015 season was over 33,000 per game. The Royals haven’t even done half that since 2019.

Does signing Bobby Witt Jr. bring back the Royals as a dynasty? Of course not — the team has still more holes than Clyde Barrow’s 1934 Ford DeLuxe Fordor. But Witt’s signing is a callback to a happier time, when Royal blue held more than just temporary apparel for superstars. Whether or not the Royals solve their other problems, for the next decade, shortstop probably won’t be one of them.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

61 Comments
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GoodEnoughForMe
2 months ago

‘The Royals have the largest payroll in the AL Central in 2024’ was not a sentence I ever expected to see or hear.

Pepper Martin
2 months ago

Thing I learned recently that blew me away: only 4 Hall of Famers have ever played a single game for the Royals, and only 1 of them (George Brett) played more than one season for the Royals. The others:

Orlando Cepeda (33 games)
Harmon Killebrew (106 games)
Gaylord Perry (14 games)

Team’s been around for 55 years! If ever there were a team in need of a new face of the franchise, it’s this one.

Left of Centerfield
2 months ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

Hey, I mentioned that a few weeks ago (I think on one of the Sunday columns). Stop stealing from me!!! JK

Yeah, I was floored when I learned that as well. I found it a few months ago via Immaculate Grid. One of the boxes was a Royals HOFer. I obviously entered Brett. Then, when I finished the grid, I was surprised to see there were only 4 correct answers. And even more shocked to see who the other 3 were.

Anyway, they might get Beltran soon. If not, Grienke isn’t far behind…

Ivan_Grushenkomember
2 months ago

David Cone and Bret Saberhagen would be in my HOF over all these relievers and Jim Rice

BenZobrist4MVP
2 months ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

That is crazy, although to be fair, Zack Greinke and Carlos Beltran will eventually join that list and it’s possible David Cone could someday too.

hopbittersmember
2 months ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

Thing I learned just now because you made me curious: 10 Hall of Famers played for the Monarchs.

Left of Centerfield
2 months ago
Reply to  hopbitters

BTW, here are the numbers for the other ’69 expansion teams:

Montreal Expos/Washington Nats (10): Larry Walker, Lee Smith, Vlad Guerrero, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Tony Perez

San Diego Padres (13): Fred McGriff, Trevor Hoffman, Mike Piazza, Greg Maddux, Roberto Alomar, Rickey Henderson, Goose Gossage, Tony Gwynn, Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Rollie Fingers, Gaylord Perry, Willie McCovey

Seattle Pilots/Milwaukee Brewers (7): Ted Simmons, Trevor Hoffman, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Don Sutton, Rollie Fingers, Hank Aaron

So yeah, the Royals are lagging behind just a bit in terms of overall numbers as well as length/quality of career with the team.

sadtrombonemember
2 months ago

Here’s another fun little fact–the number of championships for each one:
Royals: 2
Expos / Nats: 1
Padres: 0
Brewers: 0

I find this wild. The Brewers had half those guys at the same time. The Expos had Gary Carter, Tim Raines, and Andre Dawson all around the same time. The Padres never had a critical mass of many of them being being elite and on the team at the same time. Meanwhile, the Royals only had something like two-better-than-average hitters in 1985 and rode them, a good rotation, and a dominant closer all the way to the championship.

Left of Centerfield
2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Closest for the Padres was the ’92 team with McGriff and Gwynn + almost HOFer Gary Sheffield. They brought all three back the next year but traded Sheffield partway through the year, getting Hoffman back as part of the deal.

John Churchmember
2 months ago

Traded McGriff away too (for Ryan Klesko, if memory serves). The Sheffield deal worked out slightly better.

Left of Centerfield
2 months ago
Reply to  John Church

You’re right, not sure how I missed McGriff getting traded in ’93. But the main player they got back was Melvin Nieves, a top 100 prospect who flopped.

Claydvmember
2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

That 1994 expos team is an exercise in what could have been. 74-40 when the strike happened. Larry Walker and Pedro as future HOF playing the part. Jeff Fassero, Ken Hill, Moises Alou, and Marquis Grissom all excellent.

MikeSmember
2 months ago

How can the small market White Sox expect to compete with a free spending team like that?