Last week the Rays made a major investment with their star shortstop, signing 20-year old Wander Franco to an 11-year contract worth a guaranteed $182 million, a deal that could earn him up to $223 million over 12 years if everything goes right. Franco was long considered the top prospect in baseball and is coming off a rookie campaign where he set a record for most consecutive games where he reached base for a player 20 years old or under and hit .288/.347/.463 with 3.5 rWAR in just 70 games.
The fact that a low payroll team like the Rays invested that much money shows how much they believe in Franco as a star. There is every reason to think he’ll become a star - the ZIPS projection system has him accumulating over 50 fWAR over the course of the deal, well worth the investment.
If the Rays can commit to their young shortstop for well over the next decade, there is no reason why the Royals can’t do the same with Bobby Witt, Jr. The big difference is that Franco has gotten his feet wet playing Major League Baseball, albeit in less than half a season. Witt dominated Double-A and Triple-A this year, hitting a combined .290/.361/.575 with 33 home runs and 29 steals, earning Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year honors. But he still has yet to spend a single day in the big leagues, and we can’t be sure of how he’ll respond to the transition.
Teams have signed players to long-term deals before they’ve made their Major League debuts before. White Sox outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, and Mariners first baseman Evan White all recently signed pre-debut deals, and going back further the Astors signed first baseman Jon Singleton to a deal before his debut, although Singleton never panned out in the big leagues.
That is a worry with Witt as it is with all prospects, and the more the Royals see Witt respond to Major League pitching, the better they can feel about his ability to make the jump. However the more you see, the more the price can go up. So if you really believe in Witt, perhaps the best time to strike is now, when there is still some risk priced into the deal. Another added benefit is that the Royals could call him up immediately on Opening Day without having to worry about service time issues.
David Lesky at Inside the Crown recently took a look at what a long-term deal for Witt might look like.
What if we look at $8 million in the first arbitration year, $14 million in the second and $18 million in the third. Give him a little extra in the first three years, say, $4 million instead of $2 million to balance the last couple of years a bit. That ends up making the deal around $44 million for six years. Add on, say, a $2 million buyout to the first of two options years (because that’s the going rate on these deals) and you’re looking at:
Six years, $46 million guaranteed for 2022-2027
Two option years: $22 million for the first, $25 million for the second with a $2 million buyout on each
Total top value: Eight years, $89 million
That would commit to Witt through his age-29 season with the largest contract in Royals history. The cost of 1 WAR on the free agent market has been pegged around $9 million, so Witt would really have to be less than a 2 WAR player to not justify covering the arbirtation seasons. If the Royals had two club option years tacked on, they’d have an enormous amount of flexibility, able to exercise $20+ million options if Witt reaches closes to his star potential, possibly getting a great bargain if he becomes a superstar. Witt will probably push to have those last two years guaranteed, but even then, the Royals could be getting good value if he’s a 3 WAR player.
Basically, the only way this would be a bad deal for the Royals is if he busts. And despite his pedigree, despite his amazing tools, highlight-reel plays, and amazing statistics at a young age, there is still a decent chance he could fail.
We know prospect performance can be a bit of a crapshoot. But top prospects tend to be a bit more of a sure thing. I took a look at hitting prospects who were top five prospects from 2010 to 2020, according to Baseball America, and looked at their statistics before they would have become eligible for free agency. I arranged them by WAR-per-162 games and found that the median player was Javier Baez, who has been worth 4.4 WAR-per-162 games and is one of the top free agents right now.
Of the 28 top hitting prospects, here is how I would organize them based on what they did/have done in their pre-free agency years:
Superstars (6): Carlos Correa, Wander Franco, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Bryce Harper, Fernando Tatis, Jr., Mike Trout
Stars (8): Javier Baez, Bo Bichette, Xander Bogaerts, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Luis Robert, Corey Seager, Giancarlo Stanton
Star if he could stay healthy (1): Byron Buxton
Good regulars (7): Andrew Benintendi, Eloy Jimenez, Gavin Lux, Yoan Moncada, Wil Myers, Dansby Swanson, Gleyber Torres
Regular, but fell off a cliff and had off-field issues (1): Addison Russell
Too early to tell, but not off to a good start (1): Jo Adell
Busts (4): Domonic Brown, Jesus Montero, Jurickson Profar, Nick Senzel
The likelihood of a top hitting prospect becoming a bust seems about as likely as the prospect becoming a superstar. But those cautionary tales aren’t super far-fetched scenarios. Even if a player doesn’t fail because of performance, there are several other things that can derail their career. Injuries (Byron Buxton) and off-field issues (Addison Russell) can be factors, and I didn’t even include Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras, who tragically died before he could make his MLB debut. When writing about Franco, even Szymborski concedes that there is a “35 percent chance that Franco isn’t worth the $182 million investment.”
On the other hand, even if Witt completely busts, the Royals should be in a better position to absorb it than they’ve been in the past. They have carried some bad contracts in the past that were onerous, but did not preclude them from making other deals. They finally have a television deal that pays them the market rate and by the time Witt is in the last few years of the deal, they’ll likely have either stadium renovations for Kauffman Stadium or a new ballpark on the horizon.
Of course, it takes two to tango. Bobby is the son of a big leaguer who has already been paid a $7.8 million draft bonus. He may be banking on himself and his immense talent for an even bigger payday rather than going for the guaranteed money now. There is also a tremendous amount of uncertainty on what the landscape of baseball will look like under a new collective bargaining agreement.
But if the new ownership group is trying to generate excitement for Royals baseball and build support for a new stadium, investing in the next face of the franchise would be a great way to do it.
Would you sign Bobby Witt, Jr. to an eight-year, $89 million deal right now?
This poll is closed
Yes, sign him now
No, let’s wait a bit