Bobby Witt Jr. is enjoying a solid rookie season, becoming the fifth player to hit at least 20 home runs and steal at least 20 bases in his very first season. He has had some ups and downs but it is clear he at least has the skillset to be a cornerstone player for this franchise, if not a league star.
Having made the Opening Day roster, Witt is guaranteed to get a full year of service time this year (and he might have anyway had he finished in the top two of Rookie of the Year balloting under a new provision in the labor deal). So his service time clock is ticking, with just five years left before he is eligible to entertain free agency.
The Royals might be wise to keep Bobby in Kansas City a bit longer with a long-term deal. This season there have already been rookies who have signed long-term deals before even completing their first season- Seattle’s Julio Rodríguez and Atlanta’s Michael Harris II. Could those market-setting contracts give us a clue as to what it would take to sign Bobby?
First of all, let’s compare how the rookies have done this year.
|Michael Harris II||21||335||15||.309||.352||.538||4.8||25.1||4.2|
|Bobby Witt Jr.||22||524||20||.248||.290||.443||4.8||21.8||2.1|
It has been a very strong season for rookies (in addition to this trio, Braves pitcher Spencer Strider, Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan, Astros shortstop Jeremy Peña, and Mariners pitcher George Kirby have all had Rookie of the Year-caliber seasons, and the Royals have had strong starts from MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, and Nick Pratto). These three in particular have enjoyed a strong season at a very young age - all would be eligible for free agency before their 28th birthday, meaning teams should want to get as much of their prime as they can.
By the numbers Witt has not been as good as Harris nor Rodríguez, but the gap isn’t that large. Witt is hurt by having a pretty low walk rate - only six qualified hitters in baseball walk less. But it’s not like Rodríguez or Harris let many pitches go by either. Both Witt and Harris are near the top of the league in chase rate, while Rodríguez is not far behind.
Witt has also been a bit BABIP-unlucky, while Rodríguez and especially Harris (.381 BABIP!) have been pretty fortunate. All three possess terrific power with good average exit velocity, although Bobby’s hard hit percentage is a bit behind the other two. Bobby is one of the best baserunners in baseball, while the other two are not far behind.
All three play premium defensive positions - at least when Witt is not playing third. Harris has been Gold Glove-caliber in center, while Rodriguez has been below-average in center by many metrics and Witt has been pretty shaky at shortstop while a bit more capable at third.
The Braves signed Michael Harris II in mid-August, and if anything, people were surprised by his long-term deal wasn’t more lucrative, with some saying he left as much as $200 million on the table. But Harris never hit for this kind of power in the minors, and there may be some skepticism that he can continue to hit like this. Here is the breakdown of the eight-year, $72 million deal.
2023 - $5 million
2024 - $5 million
2025 - $8 million
2026 - $8 million
2027 - $9 million
2028 - $10 million
2029 - $10 million
2030 - $12 million
The Braves have two club options after that worth $15 million in 2031 and $20 million in 2032, with a $5 million buyout for each year, giving Harris an average annual value (AAV) of $9 million.
The Julio Rodríguez deal came a bit over a week later, and while there was a lot made over the fact it could be up to $470 million, at its essence it is a seven-year, $104 million guaranteed deal, with five player-option seasons worth $18 million per year and a $15 million signing bonus with a ton of escalators and options and incentives that could inflate the deal over time.
2023 - $4 million
2024 - $10 million
2025 - $18 million
2026 - $18 million
2027 - $18 million
2028 - $18 million
2029 - $18 million
The Mariners can also opt-in to an extension after the 2028 season that could be as much as ten years and worth $350 million, depending on how Rodríguez has fared in MVP voting. So there are a lot of sweeteners, but if Rodríguez were to be unable to play baseball anymore, he would still receive at a minimum, $209 million over the next 12 years (base salary plus player options plus signing bonus), an AAV of $17.4 million, which is just a bit above the $16.7 million AAV the Rays gave then-first-year player Wander Franco in 2021 when they signed him to an 11-year, $184 million contract.
What can we expect from each player going forward? Dan Szymborski at Fangraphs updated his ZIPS projections for Harris and Rodríguez after their signings, and has Harris worth about 6 WAR over the next two seasons - a great glove man who can hit, but not a big slugger. Julio projects to be basically a superstar, worth over 11.5 WAR over the next two seasons. He has not given an update for Witt, but Bobby has pretty much matched his 2022 projection, so if he continues on that trajectory, he projects for a combined 9.4 WAR over 2023-24, about halfway between Harris and Rodríguez.
That seems about right. Witt has more star potential than Harris certainly, but he hasn’t achieved yet what Rodríguez has. He has been a very solid player with some good variance possibilities that he could erupt and become a superstar. Let’s start with this framework:
2023 - $5 million
2024 - $6.5 million
2025 - $9.5 million
2026 - $14.5 million
2027 - $17.5 million
2028 - $22 million
2029 - $25 million
2030 - $27 million mutual option with a $5 million buyout
Seven years, $105 million, an AAV of $15 million. That buys out two years of free agency, and Bobby can still become a free agent before age 30, in time to get another good long-term deal. And the Royals can add some sweeteners and incentives for MVP voting, All-Star selections, and Silver Slugger awards.
I would be hesitant for them to add player options the way the Mariners did with Rodríguez. Player options are only ever exercised if something has gone terribly wrong for the player, and the Royals really cannot afford to pay $20+ million to a player for which something has gone terribly wrong. An opt out is also a possibility, but that would defeat the purpose of getting him to commit to a long-term deal.
To be clear, Witt would likely be underpaid even with this deal if he continues to play up to his projections. ZIPS projects him to be a 4+ WAR player for the next few seasons, such a player is worth over $30 million in the open market. But he won’t be on the open market. This reflects more than what he could get under club control, with the trade off being the two years of free agency he is giving up.
Witt is also getting the security of $105 million guaranteed. How likely is it that he sustains his rookie performance for several years? (Royals fans have seen at least two Rookie of the Year Award winners flame out rather quickly in Bob Hamelin and Angel Berroa) Does his chase rate catch up with him? Does he ever figure it out defensively? Does he stay healthy? If he makes it to 2029 having put up 4 WAR seasons each year, he will have put up more WAR by age 30 than any other Royals hitter in history other than George Brett and Willie Wilson.
Would Bobby be amenable to such a deal? It’s hard to say. He already has $7.7 million owed to him through his draft signing bonus, and he comes from an affluent family, the son of a former big leaguer. He is represented by Octagon, where his dad works as an agent and is likely heavily involved in any negotiations. Players can also make more money in their pre-arbitration years than they could before, and Bobby has the chance to earn a few million even before he hits arbitration. He will have more financial cushion to bet on himself for that mega-deal.
On the other hand, Julio Rodríguez was also an Octagon client, had made a decent $1.75 million amateur bonus and already looked ready to hit super-stardom. The Mariners were very creative in structuring a deal that could be both beneficial for him and for them. It will probably take that same kind of creativity to keep Bobby Witt Jr. in Royals blue for the next decade.
The Royals have the closest thing to a potential superstar on their roster for the first time since Carlos Beltrán first broke into the big leagues. If they don’t want to make an uncomfortable trade like they did with Beltrán, they would be wise to get Witt to the bargaining table for a long-term deal. Whether Bobby and his representation are open to that is another matter. But money can make a lot of things happen, the only question is how much money will it take?
Would you offer a seven-year, $105 million deal to Bobby Witt Jr.?
This poll is closed
No, I would offer more
No, I would offer less
No, I don’t think the Royals should sign him yet