While the Royals’ rebuild hasn’t gone to plan overall, Kansas City does have at least one cornerstone in Bobby Witt Jr. The second overall pick of the 2019 draft has lived up to the hype in his young career, fully breaking out with a 5.7 fWAR season in 2023 that saw Witt hit .276/.319/.495 over 694 plate appearances with 30 homers, 49 stolen bases (in 64 chances), and a league-high 11 triples. The public defensive metrics are rather unusually split on Witt’s glovework, but at least in the view of the Outs Above Average metric, Witt’s +14 number makes him one of sport’s best defensive shortstops, to boot.
The future is very bright for the 23-year-old, and some level of discussion seems to have taken place between Witt and the Royals in regards to how much of that future will be in K.C. Witt told Jaylon Thompson of the Kansas City Star that “I think there is some talks here and there” in regards to a possible contract extension, “so we’re just kind of waiting to see. I love this organization and love this team. It’s just kind of one of those things. If the time is right, the time’s right.”
Players and teams usually tend to keep contract negotiations quiet, especially since things between Witt and the Royals might still be somewhat in the embryonic stages. As Thompson noted, Royals GM J.J. Picollo said last month that the club was “working on” extending Witt, and that “it would be exciting to do so, as he is a special player. We want to keep special players in our uniform.”
To this end, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal hears from a source that the Royals are “at least entertaining the idea of approaching Witt” about an extension at some point this offseason, which implies that no formal offers have been issued or perhaps even floated towards Witt’s representatives at Octagon. It is worth noting that there isn’t a big ticking clock on either side to fully delve into talks, as Witt is under team control through 2027 and won’t even be eligible for salary arbitration until next winter.
That said, Witt’s price tag will only increase as time goes by. Witt is already looking at a sizeable set of increasing salaries through his arb seasons, so the Royals would surely like to gain some cost certainty for those years at the minimum. If a larger-scale extension can’t be worked out, Witt and the Royals might explore a shorter-term deal covering just the arbitration seasons, akin to the three-year extension Bo Bichette signed with the Blue Jays last spring.
Even that type of extension would be a relatively pricey endeavor for a Kansas City franchise that has never been big spenders. Salvador Perez’s four-year, $82MM extension prior to the 2021 season remains the largest contract in franchise history, and a long-term deal for Witt might be at least twice that amount, depending on the number of years covered.
For instance, the Rays inked Wander Franco to an 11-year, $182MM extension after Franco’s 2021 rookie season, which consisted of 70 MLB games. Like Franco, Witt was also a heavily hyped shortstop prospect, but Witt now has two full productive Major League seasons under his belt, so it would seem like Octagon could surely argue that a Witt extension deserves to top Franco’s deal, and approach or top the $200MM mark. The Braves’ Austin Riley inked a ten-year, $212MM extension when he was between two and three years of MLB service time.
Though the Rays have shown a (comparatively) greater inclination to spend lately, we haven’t yet really seen how far the Royals are willing or able to stretch their payroll under owner John Sherman. On the one hand, Perez’s extension did take place under Sherman’s watch, as part of a relative spending spree during the 2020-21 offseason that also saw a four-year extension for Hunter Dozier, as well as two-year free agent deals for Mike Minor and Carlos Santana. All of these moves were made with the intent of boosting what the Royals thought was a group of youngsters on the verge of a breakout, yet the team has continued to struggle. This cost former president of baseball operations Dayton Moore his job in 2022, elevating Picollo from second-in-command to the head of the decision-making pyramid.
Some other big-picture issues cloud the financial picture. While the bankruptcy of the Diamond Sports Group has yet to impact the Royals’ broadcasts on Bally Sports, Sherman said last spring that naturally the organization was monitoring the situation should the Royals’ TV rights payments suddenly come into question. As well, Sherman has been trying to get a new ballpark built in Kansas City, and in some instances, owners claiming that a new stadium is critical to a team’s ability to compete don’t want to perhaps undercut that argument by then spending $200MM on a player’s contract. That said, Rosenthal argues in the other direction, writing that a Witt extension “might help sway public sentiment” to get the ballpark project off the ground.
Even if K.C. probably aren’t going to be huge players in the offseason transaction market, the possibility of a Witt extension stands out as a notable subplot to watch — both for its importance on the Royals’ future, and as a benchmark for future extensions. Even if the two sides are in the proverbial “talking about having some talks” phase of negotiations, expect things to get at least a little more serious as we get deeper into Spring Training, as teams tend to focus more on extensions once their offseason business is complete.