As the best young Royals player since Hall of Fame talent Carlos Beltran roamed Kauffman Stadium’s outfield a quarter century ago, Bobby Witt Jr. is an immensely fun player to watch. Kansas City baseball fans rejoiced this week when Witt signed an 11-year extension worth $288 million—meaning that they’ll get to watch Witt for a long time.
It’s a heck of a headline, especially for those who vaguely pay attention to baseball. In this case, it’s also a heck of a big deal. The Royals have traditionally not been able to secure the services of their stars past free agency. Witt’s closest Kansas City comps are Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez; the Royals signed Gordon for $105.5 million across two deals from 2012 through 2019, and Perez will end up making $134.5 million in extension money across two deals from 2016 through 2025.
But neither Gordon nor Perez signed for a nine-figure deal at once, and the Royals were reticent to offer the likes of Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, and even Mike Moustakas what they were worth on the open market. And as for Beltran, well, the Royals missed out on signing him to an extension over $1 million. The Royals guaranteed Witt 200 times that much.
However, while the broad strokes are really important, so are the nitty-gritty details and the reasoning behind the deal. Let’s get into them, and equally as importantly, what they imply.
Why Witt signed an extension
Baseball’s salary structure for rookies and young players is relatively simple, and it’s designed to suppress the salaries of talent until they hit free agency. Experience is measured by a statistic called “service time,” which is simply days spent on a big league roster. One year of service time equates to 172 days.
Most MLB players make the league minimum salary for their first three full years of service time; the league minimum salary in 2024 is $740,000. After that, players reach a process called salary arbitration. During these arbitration years (or “arb years” in the business), player salaries escalate each year based on their performance—MLB.com’s glossary describes the amount players earn as “primarily based on comparable players who have signed contracts in recent seasons.”
Now, because the Royals called Witt up to play on Opening Day in 2022, he qualifies as a special type of player: a “Super Two” player who receives two years of the league minimum and four years of arbitration. This means he would have made more money in arbitration than he would have otherwise—former Royals Review writer Shaun Newkirk projected Witt would have earned about $35 million in arbitration. And while it’s hard to nail down how much Witt would have made in free agency, Corey Seager’s 10-year, $325 million contract signed in his age-28 season is probably a good comp.
What do all these numbers mean? Here’s a recap:
- Without an extension, Witt would have likely earned $35 million through 2027
- If Witt hit free agency, he would have likely signed a $300+ million deal through 2037
Therefore, an extension would need to provide Witt money sooner than free agency while paying him commensurate to his free agent value and preserving his ability to make a lot of money later. The Royals would get multiple years of control out of Witt that they would not have been able to get otherwise.
And, what do you know, it worked out.
- 2024: $2M
- 2025: $7M
- 2026: $13M
- 2027: $19M
- 2028: $30M (would-be first year of free agency)
- 2029: $35M
- 2030: $35M
- 2031: $35M (player option)
- 2032: $35M (player option)
- 2033: $35M (player option)
- 2034: $35M (player option)
- 2035: $33M (club option)
- 2036: $28M (club option)
- 2037: $28M (club option)
The extension pushes significantly more money towards Witt earlier than he would otherwise have made. Along with his $7,777,777 million signing bonus, Witt will make nearly $49 million over the next four seasons, or about $14 million more than he’d have likely earned in arbitration.
More importantly, you’ll note that while Witt is guaranteed $210 million, as he has control over his player options, this is essentially a seven-year, $148 million deal for the Royals—where the Royals are paying $113 million to secure him for at least three years of free agency.
That’s because it is unlikely that Witt ever exercises any of his player options. Remember: in free agency, Witt can negotiate with multiple teams, which would drive his price up. If Witt continues to be worth his deal—which projection systems suggest that he will easily do—Witt would be in line to sign another massive free agent deal in his age-31 season. The extension’s player and club options total to $229 million, but if Witt is still an excellent player, he’ll probably get more than that on the open market (Xander Bogaerts signed for $280 million as a 30-year-old last year, for instance). And if Witt declines and can’t make that much in free agency, he’ll pick up those player options.
There are a few likely outcomes from this contract. Here they are, in order of most likely to least likely to happen.
Outcome #1: Witt stays for seven years and signs a mega-deal elsewhere
Witt is very, very good already. If he maintains his 2023 second-half split of .301/.343/.563 over a whole year, he will be on everybody’s MVP shortlists. Witt could very well sign a $300 million deal after making nearly $150 million in his extension, and the Royals are probably not made of that kind of money.
This is not a bad outcome by any means! At the bare minimum, Witt will spend his most productive season as a Royal, and Royals fans will get to see him for nine whole seasons. That’s a lot of stolen bases and dingers.
Outcome #2: Witt renegotiates the rest of his contract before the player options hit
Just because Witt signed a big ol’ contract doesn’t mean that this is the only extension he can sign. Over in Houston, Jose Altuve signed another extension to keep him in blue and orange for, essentially, the rest of his career—his third extension with the team.
If the Witt and Kansas City partnership is still going well and both parties are amenable to it, the two parties have built in a natural renegotiation point before the 2031 season. They could totally rip up the deal and work on a new one, or they could, say, convert the rest of the deal (including the player and club options) into guaranteed money, tack on another $30 million year onto the end, throw in a signing bonus, and call it a day.
Outcome #3: Witt stays for four or five years before being traded for a king’s ransom of prospects
The Royals just lost 100 games and have just about the worst farm system in baseball. It is entirely possible—and, sadly, likely—that the Royals will never be particularly good in Witt’s tenure. Without this extension, the Royals would have probably been forced to trade Witt with one or two years left in his deal (after 2025, basically). With this extension, the Royals have given themselves a bigger window, but windows still close.
Outcome #4: Witt gets hurt and picks up one (1) player option
The player options are hedges against risk. Getting injured is a risk, and there are an unfortunately wide range of ways to get hurt on a baseball diamond. There’s a reasonable chance that some injury suffered at the end of the season prevents Witt’s availability for much of the following year and would affect his contract status. It would then make a bunch of sense for Witt to pick up his $35 million player option, make his way back from injury, prove that he’s still very good at his job, and then make a bazillion dollars or whatever the next year.
Outcomes #5 and beyond: literally anything else
Could Witt decline so precipitously that he ends up not being worth much in free agency in seven years and he picks up all four player options before retiring? Sure, but it’s not likely. It is also not likely that those club options would ever happen, because it would take Witt being bad enough to not elect testing the open market but also good enough to entice the Royals to spend $89 million on a mid-30s player—but it is theoretically possible.
In any case, Witt is here to stay, and that is wonderful to think about. May he mash dingers forevermore. Amen.