Bobby Witt Jr. is really good at baseball, and he just turned 22 years old. If the Royals don't move now to lock him up for a longer term, the opportunity will pass. We have two recent young shortstops who have signed deals that show this very explicitly, so it is time for the Royals to act.
The first month of pro baseball did not go particularly well for Bobby as he hit .216/.247/.311 for a 55 wRC+. Since then, the bat has been quite good hitting for a 130 wRC+ in May and 119 so far in June. Every day that he does well is making his contract more expensive going forward, whether he signs his next contract this week or after reaching free agency at the end of the 2027 season.
Two top-end shortstop talents have signed large multi-year extensions in the past year and a half, and they are instructional on how much more expensive a player can get in a short amount of time. First is Wander Franco. In November last year Franco signed an 11-year $182 Million extension, and this is the cheap one by the way. The sticker shock is going to make a lot of people say the Royals can't afford this, but if they can afford to give Alex Gordon $72 million over four years in 2015, they can definitely afford to give a player 150% more and stretch out over 3 times the length in 2022. In fact, if the Tampa Bay Rays can give a player a contract with their monetary issues, any other team in the league can. Important to all of this is the way that contract is structured.
Wander will be paid (in millions) 1, 2, 2, 8, 15, 22, 25, 25, 25, 25, and 25 across those eleven years, so he doesn't start costing much of anything until year 5 when he would be in year two of arbitration. By the end he is making $25 million, but again, those are 2028 dollars at the earliest and by then that may not be very much. Especially in a world with high inflationary pressures all around, $25 million might feel super cheap. From 2012 to 2022 league average opening day payroll went from $98 million to 134.5 million, a CAGR of 3.2%. Top end players have gotten expensive at a much higher growth rate, but we will stick with the more conservative number. At that rate, in ten years the average payroll would be $184.5 million, so even the Royals should be able to swing well over $100 million each year (they have been as high as $127 in the past). At that point, your franchise player making less than 20% or so of your budget should be very manageable.
Franco signed this extension when he had 70 games and 308 plate appearances at the major league level. Witt is at 59 games and 242 as of the end of the game on Tuesday night. Franco was in between his 21 year-old and 22 year-old seasons and Witt just turned 22 yesterday. Witt has amassed 1.5 fWAR so far to Franco's (then) 2.4, so the deals should be very similar if the length were the same, though maybe the Royals can use the production difference to get a little lower cost. If I were Bobby Witt I would not sign for the same length that Wander did for two reasons. One, the Royals' organization is worse than the Rays' at consistently putting a winning team on the field. Two, I would want to double dip using my young age at which I started the service time clock. The extension gets you a large pile of money in case of injury or other issues, but if it ends before you turn 30, then you get to go to free agency at a time when you are still going to be seen as in your peak production years. With that, I will get to recommendations after the cautionary tale.
Another young shortstop, and son of a former big leaguer, Fernando Tatis Jr. signed a contract extension in February of 2021 shortly after his 22nd birthday. In his rookie year he played 84 games and amassed 3 fWAR. Then, in a COVID shortened 2020, he played 59 games and managed 3.3 fWAR, that's a 9 win pace over 162 games!! He was clearly better early on than either Witt Jr. or Franco has been, but then he got a chance to prove it again the next season before signing on the dotted line and that pushed the cost even higher. His extension was for 14 years (!?) and $340 million, 87% more overall than the Franco contract, albeit spread out over three more years. His early salaries look very similar to Franco's, but then the last six years he will be making $36 million a year. If Bobby Witt has a 5 or 6 win season this year, I think this is more the type of contract that we are looking at, and based on his production the last six weeks, it is a possibility. At that point, the Royals probably can't afford him anymore.
If I were the Royals, I would basically make him the exact same offer that the Rays made Wander Franco. Maybe adjust it based on what you know about Witt and what he wants, but something in that range +/-5% seems like the right way to go about it. If I were Bobby Witt Jr., I would turn that offer down, but I want a guaranteed payday of $100 million while maintaining my upside in free agency when I get there. If you lop off the last three years of the Franco contract, it becomes an 8 year, $110 million contract roughly. Or a seven year contract leaving this year's salary structure intact (plus maybe a signing bonus). That would make the contract end in 2027 when Witt Jr. will be heading into his age 28 season, but still 27 years old. if you offer him $110 million, again +/- a bit depending on timing and what the player wants, I think the Royals could get a couple extra years. That sounds like a lot of money for two more years, so for context, Aaron Judge in three years of arbitration is going to make just a little shy of $40 million, so we are really talking about paying $50 to 60 million way in the future (present value of $40 million or less depending on salary inflation) to get two extra years of Bobby Witt in his prime. That seems fair for both the team and the player in my opinion.