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Lessons learned from the Hunter Dozier deal

Will the deal scare the Royals from signing their next crop of young players?

Kansas City Royals v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Royals designated Hunter Dozier for assignment this week after he hit .183/.253/.305 in 91 plate appearances this season. It has been a disappointing ending for a player in the third year of a four-year $25 million deal who was expected to be a power bat in the middle of the lineup for their resurgence.

The Dozier deal seems ill-advised now, but at the time it was perceived as a decent deal that would give the Royals some continuity, a point made by then-Royals general manager Dayton Moore.

“Continuity, togetherness is so crucial if we’re going to win and have long-term success. To be able to create that is really important.”

Sam Mellinger, then a columnist at the Star, felt it was a fair deal for both sides.

“As far as the money, it’s a pretty typical deal. Dozier probably - if he just plays it out and we just expect a reasonable - not for him to blow up, not for him to collapse, but a reasonable progression - he probably wouldn’t have made a little bit more money through the arb years.”

Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS model projected him to be an above-average hitter in 2023. Craig Edwards at Fangraphs called him “the best hitter you’ve never heard of.” Even negative ol’ Royals Review gave the signing a 91 percent approval rating. At the time of the signing, I wrote:

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.

But there were an undercurrent of concerns I probably should have given more credence.

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.

Even Mellinger added:

“The Royals already had him under club control for a few more years. And he’s 29, he’s going to turn 30. It is logical to believe that his best seasons will be before his previously scheduled free agency. So it’s almost like the Royals are doing him a favor too.”

It turned out his best years were before he even signed his contract, as he hit just .222/.286/.384 with 308 strikeouts in 301 games in the three subsequent seasons.

With the contract now behind them, there are a few lessons the Royals could learn from the Hunter Dozier deal as they considered the next wave of long-term contracts with players like Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, and Brady Singer.

An inconsistent track record is a red flag

Hunter Dozier was a first-round pick, but he put up pretty underwhelming numbers initially in the lower minors. He finally put together a terrific season in Triple-A at age 24, but injuries derailed him the next season. He finally broke through the big leagues in 2018, but again struggled. It wasn’t until 2019 that he finally broke through with a .279/.348/.522 season with 26 home runs. But again he regressed in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, although many attributed his drop-off to a COVID-19 diagnosis.

Dozier received his deal based on one good minor league season and one good MLB season. He received his four-year deal despite coming of a very lackluster season. His track record was spotty enough that it should have raised more red flags about her performance being a fluke.

But do not confuse “inconsistent track record” with “lack of consistent track record.” For example, we don’t have much to go on with Vinnie Pasquantino right now - he has played just 121 career big league games. But what we’ve seen is very, very good - he hasn’t struggled the way Dozier did. The Royals may be waiting to see more, as Star columnist Sam McDowell writes:

They’ve concluded with the decision to wait for more data, knowing that too can come with risk. The price of poker can increase. In a stroke of irony, they’re basically hoping it does.

But if they wait too long, the price can skyrocket over $100 million. It is a tricky game, projecting out a player’s career with limited data, but the Royals should be avoiding those players who had some struggles. Bobby Witt Jr. has had some mixed results so far, and is currently in a slump, which may give the team pause before committing a huge deal to him.

Be mindful of the aging curve

Dozier was a bit of a late bloomer, breaking through at age 27. He signed his long-term deal at age 28, and the deal is set to expire when he is 33 years old. The Royals committed to his age 28-32 seasons, generally when players begin to decline.

Royals fans have already seen a couple popular players completely crater once they passed their prime years. Billy Butler left Kansas City to sign a three-year deal with Oakland at age 29, only to be released with a year and a half left on his deal. The much more athletic Alex Gordon decided to stay in Kansas City, but his performance cratered as soon as he inked his name on the contract that began in his age-32 season. Salvador Perez, of course, has been the exception (which only shows what a unique talent he is!) but even his skills will erode eventually, most likely when he is still in his multi-year deal.

It is great to get attached to players as they come great, but Father Time remains undefeated. It catches up to all the greats, and the smart small-market teams don’t keep around players on long-term deals well into their 30s. Signing a player like Vinnie Pasquantino may make sense, but only if the Royals capture his peak years, and aren’t paying him top dollar to be an aging slugger in his 30s.

Players with limited defensive value need to hit

Dozier was a terrific hitter in 2019, but even then it was unclear what defensive value he brought to the table. A former college shortstop, Dozier was erratic at third base, and had limited mobility in right field. By the time he had signed his deal, he had already established he was a poor defender. Since 2018, he has been the worst defender in baseball, with a value of -7.5 dWAR.

The second-worst defensive player over that time is Nicholas Castellanos, but few mind his $100 million deal because he has posted a 120 OPS+ over that time. Being a poor defender puts even more pressure on a player to hit, and Dozier failed on both sides of the ball. A player like Bobby Witt Jr. who struggles with the bat can still contribute with his legs and glove. But it remains unclear where MJ Melendez will play long-term, as he has been a poor defender at both catcher and outfield so far. Limited defensive players like Melendez and Pasquantino will have to hit - and hit a lot - to justify long-term deals.

Consider the benefit to a long-term deal

I am of the general thought that long-term deals are a bit overrated. In terms of players vs. owners, I am happy to see players get paid for their contributions, but as a purely baseball business decision, the benefits are not as great as they appear, in my opinion. Dayton Moore touted “consistency” as a reason to keep Dozier, an intangible concept impossible to quantify and dubious in value as other small-market teams win with roster churn. Others have touted long-term deals for their “cost certainty”, meaning teams will know how much a player makes rather than taking the risk of arbitration, but it’s difficult for me to discern what real value that has.

Baseball players are bound to their teams - for better or worse - for six years. They already have a long-term contract of sorts, six-years of club options. That gives teams both security and flexibility - they hold all the cards. By giving that flexibility away to players, teams must get a tangible benefit - namely extra years of security. Long-term deals must add on extra years of free agency - and those need to be productive years near a player’s prime, not when he is declining.

Long-term deals should not be handed out like candy. They must be closely scrutinized, with costs weighed against benefits. I would like talented young Royals players to stay in town as much as the next fan, but if they have to be traded for more talented young players, so be it so long as the team wins.

Ultimately, that is the biggest failure of the Dozier deal - it didn’t matter. He could have become an All-Star and the status of the club as a non-contender would not have changed. Hopefully they long-term status of this next core will matter, and the team is selective in who it chooses to extend.