The Royals have been kicked around, ignored, and dismissed as an embarrassing poverty franchise time and time again. Even winning a title in 2015 only temporarily brought acclaim as the team quickly sunk back into the depths of despair. The wounds were often self-inflicted by a team that in the past had been unwilling to sign a long-term deal with a star player over a difference of $1 million, offered $1,000 take-to-leave-it bonuses to draft picks, and skimped on scouting so much they didn’t even provide cell phones to scouts.
But things change. This week, the Royals did what fans have been dreaming about but were uncertain would ever happen - they committed major dollars to a star player to keep him in Kansas City. For years, we have seen stars like Kevin Appier, Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, Zack Greinke all traded out of town - heck, most of the championship core left after 2017. But with a lucrative long-term deal with Bobby Witt Jr., Royals fans can be confident that their star shortstop will be roaming Kauffman Stadium for years to come.
First of all, let’s call this what it is - a seven-year, $148.7 million deal. The contract has an opt out clause after each year after year seven, and there seems to be little chance Bobby fails to opt out after 2030. If he doesn’t, that means something has gone terribly wrong with his career to the point where a 30-year-old Bobby is not confident he can do better than the four years and $140 million remaining on the deal at that point.
That’s not to say Bobby is necessarily leaving after seven years, though. By 2030, the new downtown stadium should be raking in revenue, the Royals could be a more competitive team, and if owner John Sherman is serious about winning games, he can make an offer to his star player or even try to work out a new extension before he reaches free agency. Or maybe keeping Bobby at that point isn’t a wise investment - better to pay him for his prime years than when he begins to decline in his 30s.
But even for a seven-year deal, this is a big ‘effin deal. The Royals were one of three teams to have never signed a $100 million deal with a player (with the Athletics and White Sox). This is 80 percent more money than the previous biggest deal in club history - the $82 million deal to Salvador Perez signed in 2021. The entire 14-year value of Bobby’s contract would be the third-highest in baseball behind only Shohei Ohtani’s deal with the Dodgers and Mike Trout’s contract with the Angels. The Royals are sending a message to baseball - we’re not a poverty franchise anymore.
And yet, for a big deal, it won’t be one that should break the bank. Bobby will be paid less than Kris Bubic this year, less than Chris Stratton in 2025, and less than Seth Lugo in 2026 (if Lugo doesn’t opt out). It won’t be until 2027 that he’s making real money. The average salary over these seven years is just over $21 million, a bit more than what they’re currently paying Salvador Perez and well worth it if Bobby is even a 3 WAR player. He was a 4.4 rWAR player last year, and ZIPS projects him to be a 3.5+ WAR player every year until at least 2030.
This is the kind of contract that every team in baseball - small market or not - should be able to pay. Sure, the economics of the game aren’t fair, but small market teams don’t have to cosplay as victims of poverty either. At Tuesday’s press conference, John Sherman said “As a small market team, we will never use that as an excuse. There may be some things in baseball that could be improved in the long haul from a competitive balance and parity standpoint, but all I know is what we can do here, and we want to do something special for Kansas City, for our fans.”
The Royals right now are projected to have a $117 million payroll, 21st in baseball and third-highest in their division. Even with their spending this off-season, the Royals only have about $74 million in contract commitments in 2025 - less if Michael Wacha and Hunter Renfroe opt out. They should still have the flexibility to add to this team and pay the other young players on this roster in the future.
Spending to win is one thing, actually doing it is another. The Royals are still fielding a lineup that is pretty similar to the team that finished 23rd in runs scored last year despite Bobby putting up a 30 home run, 49 stolen base season. They have spent a lot to upgrade the pitching staff, but there is a long way to go to improve a team that was third-worst in runs allowed. The farm system continues to rank near the bottom of the league in most evaluator rankings.
The Royals seem very likely to improve next year (there’s nowhere to go but up!) simply by getting rid of bad players and upgrading their depth. But it remains to be seen whether they improve to an underwhelming 65-win total, or they can make substantial improvement into the 75-80 win plateau. There is still a lot of work to be done. The Royals have a seven-year window now to put a good team around a franchise player. They cannot squander this kind of opportunity.
But the Bobby Witt Jr. contract signals a new attitude in the front office on spending to retain players, which could send a message to other young players and fans that this team wants to win. Is it a naked attempt to win votes for a new stadium in April? Of course! But I’d much rather them try to win votes through investing in the team than scare us into thinking they’re going to move to Nashville. The Royals may not be able to spend like the Dodgers, but rather than cry poor about it, they’re going to put their best foot forward and try to win a division that is ripe for the taking.