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The Hunter Dozier contract shows why the Royals are different

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Has the pandemic killed off the long-term deal?

MLB: AUG 29 Royals at White Sox Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Royals officially announced a four-year, $25 million deal with third baseman Hunter Dozier that ESPN’s Jeff Passan had previously reported.

Alec Lewis of The Athletic fills in all the financial details.

Dozier would have been eligible for free agency after the 2023 season, but he will give up at least one year of free agency, and potentially two if the option is picked up. He can earn up to $49 million under the deal.

Dayton Moore is big on deals that are mutually beneficial to both sides, especially for his own players. You can see the benefit to both sides here - the Royals get to retain Hunter Dozier for up to five more years, while Hunter Dozier gets to guarantee his financial future in what will likely be the only long-term deal of his career.

If Dozier performs close to what he did in 2019, the Royals are also probably saving a bit of money in the next two years by paying Dozier $4.5 million in his second year of arbitration, and $7.25 million in his final year of arbitration. Take a look at a similar-type player in Eddie Rosario, an above-average, but not great hitter, and below-average defensive corner outfielder. With the Twins, Rosario earned $7.75 million in his second year of arbitration, and was estimated to earn around $10 million in his final year, had he not been placed on waivers to save money. If Dozier is simply an above-average hitter this year and next, he is likely earning nearly $20 million through his final two years of arbitration alone. This deal will cap his earnings if he continues to be a good hitter, but he gets the guarantee if he does not.

The Royals are banking that the Hunter Dozier we saw in 2019 is much more representative of the version we saw in 2020. In 2019, Dozier was among the top hitters in the American League with a wRC+ of 123. In 2020, he was hit with a COVID-19 diagnosis, sapping him of his power. His number significantly regressed, although his walk numbers spiked enough to make him a league-average hitter, by wRC+. If you excuse the power decline as being COVID-related, you can be excited at the prospect of combining and improved walk rate with the power numbers we saw in 2019. David Lesky laid out a very good case why Dozier may be primed for a breakout season this year.

The Royals are betting on that kind of performance as well, which is why it was smart to sign him before a breakout season. The only thing that really gives me pause about this deal is Dozier’s age. He was a late bloomer and will turn 30 this August. We know from several studies that hitters tend to peak around age 26, and generally decline after that point. The Royals already had Dozier under club control for the next three seasons. What this deal does is guarantee having Dozier in 2024 - when he turns 33 - with an option to keep him in 2025 as well. Will Hunter Dozier still be worth keeping around at that age? The Royals’ recent track record with 30+ year-old free agents hasn’t been good.

There is also a bit of a question as to where exactly Dozier fits in with this team long-term. Bobby Witt, Jr. is thought to be good enough to be in the big leagues soon, and if he is not moving Adalberto Mondesi off shortstop, he could move Dozier off third. Dozier’s positional versatility has been praised - and he has been a very good sport about moving around on the diamond - but his versatility is limited to positions low on the defensive spectrum, and frankly, he hasn’t shown to be a very good defender so far. I think he could excel defensively as a first baseman, and his numbers in 2019 would play at the position, but will they still play at age 33? If his new walk rate is for real, then perhaps, as evidenced by new teammate Carlos Santana. If he suffers a sharper decline, then the Royals will be stuck with a 33-year old of no defensive value and limited offensive value.

But that’s the risk you take with a long-term deal, and frankly, the downside isn’t that bad. If Dozier is $9 million worth of dead weight by 2024, even a team like the Royals should be able to handle that, particularly since they literally have no other contractual obligations for that year. That will change of course - Salvy may get a new contract, Brad Keller and Adalaberto Mondesi may get extensions, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic will be arbitration-eligible by then, and hopefully a mega-deal for Bobby Witt, Jr. may be on the table. We will see how far ownership goes in investing in players.

This is the kind of deal that was once rather commonplace in baseball, but has seemed rather rare recently. As Mark Polishuk at MLB Trade Rumors points out, the only players to sign contract extensions that cover free agent years since the pandemic began include mega-deals for stars like Mookie Betts and Fernando Tatis, Jr., and a one-year extension for Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. Rather than commit to these kind of players, teams are letting them leave for nothing, as the Twins did with Rosario.

But the Royals are taking a different path. Dayton Moore told reporters “We want to keep as many of our talented players here as long as we possibly can...So we’ll always look to (extend players) when the opportunity is right.” It almost feels like the Royals are stuck in time, before the pandemic and the movement in baseball to cut every unnecessary cost in the name of efficiency. All of baseball went into austerity mode, but they forgot to tell the Royals.

Actually caring about your players is a good thing, of course. And zigging while the rest of baseball zags could pay off in the standings as well, if good players want to be with an organization that treats them fairly. But ultimately, it has to work, otherwise it is just a feel-good story.

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