Extending Bobby Witt Jr. Now
What would it look like if the Royals gave their young future superstar a long-term deal before one big league pitch?
Contract extensions are very rarely signed before a player reaches the big leagues. And for a player the caliber of Bobby Witt Jr., the odds of it happening are non-zero, but not far away from zero. But that isn’t going to stop me from taking a look at what his contract might look like if he and the Royals decide to get together this winter and talk about it. Because, really, what else is there to talk about other than other teams swooping in early on free agents and millionaires fighting billionaires in the court of public opinion?
Typically when I look at contract extensions, I go through a process where I find similar players and see what they got. Then I try to give a pretty broad guess about what they might get in arbitration before they become eligible for free agency and I try to marry the two together. I did that with Adalberto Mondesi last season and I’ve done it with a few guys over the years. In fact, I might have one coming up for Andrew Benintendi. But with a guy like Witt, it’s different. There’s no track record. So I’m not exactly sure where to start here. Okay, that’s not entirely true. There’s one obvious deal to look at that was just signed a little less than two years ago.
The Big Pre-Debut Deals
The White Sox signed Luis Robert in January of 2020 before he had ever stepped foot on a big league field as a player. He had a bit more of a track record than Witt with about 180 more minor league plate appearances but 700 or so more in Cuba as well. It’s not the easiest place to scout, but there’s still just a bit more there. Robert hit .328/.376/.624 across three levels in 2019 with 31 doubles, 11 triples, 32 homers and 36 steals. The knock was that his walk rate was just 5.1 percent and his strikeout rate was 23.4 percent. He had a swinging strike rate of more than 16 percent at all three levels and it topped out at 21.1 percent in AAA. Oh and he was 21 that season.
For Witt in 2021, he also was 21 and hit .290/.361/.575 across two levels with 35 doubles, four triples, 33 home runs and 29 steals. His walk rate was 9 percent and his strikeout rate was 23.2 percent. One big difference is that his swinging strike rate was 15.7 percent in AA and 13 percent in AAA.
Okay, so clearly they’re pretty similar and both play premium defensive positions with Robert a center fielder and Witt a shortstop. This seems like a pretty open and shut case, and it probably is, but that would be kind of boring to stop there. Robert got six years and $50 million with two team options for $20 million, so the deal can end up at eight years and $88 million with the $2 million buyouts on each of the option accounting for the rest (if you’re doing the math at home and it didn’t seem to make sense).
I personally don’t entirely get this contract. Yes, it’s a pretty good compromise, but Robert would have been under team control for six seasons regardless. So if he was good (and he has been), they have cost certainty and the ability to keep him for less than the going rate on superstars. But if he wasn’t good, they’re paying a guy $50 million when they probably would have cut bait with him after four years and like $4 million. I guess there’s the risk/reward calculation and they had full faith he’d be a star. He absolutely was in an injury-shortened 2021 and he was solid enough in 2020, so it’s worked out for them to this point.
So that’s one data point.
The White Sox did the same thing with Eloy Jimenez before the 2019 season, giving him a very similar deal of six years and $43 million with two options at $16.5 million and $18.5 million. So that deal could top out at eight years and $70 million. Again, same story with buying out team control years at a guaranteed cost. The difference between Jimenez and Robert was likely the defensive value.
And the final pre-debut deal that I want to look at belonged to Scott Kingery. His isn’t exactly the perfect comparison for two reasons. One, he was two years older in his season before the deal than all three of Robert, Jimenez and Witt and two, he wasn’t the prospect that the other three were. He was a good prospect, but never a top-five prospect. But in his 2017 season, he hit .304/.359/.530 between AA and AAA with a 6.8 percent walk rate and 18.1 percent strikeout rate. He was mostly a second baseman and his contract was for six years and $24 million with three options that could have topped out at nine years and $65 million. I don’t think this will work for Witt, but I had to mention it as another pre-debut deal.
The White Sox very much enjoy locking their guys up before proving anything. They signed Tim Anderson to a six year deal for $25 million following his rookie year. He actually rewarded them with two subpar offensive seasons immediately but broke out in 2019 and hasn’t looked back. The deal has two options that could make the deal eight years and $50.5 million. It’s a steal at this point.
The Rays gave Brandon Lowe a deal in spring training of 2019 after 43 big league games in 2018. It was pretty similar to the Anderson deal at six years and $24 million with two options that could make it as high as $45 million over eight years. Lowe’s a middle infielder, but not a shortstop and his contract didn’t start until he was 24, so a bit older and with less defensive value. But that deal is working out well for the Rays right now.
The Cardinals locked up their shortstop, Paul DeJong, after just 108 big league games. Again, he was older, heading into his age-24 season, but a good defensive shortstop. He hasn’t repeated his offensive levels from his rookie season and he’s fallen off a lot the last two years, but he’s still provided some value because of the glove. His deal was six years and $26 million with two options. Hard to believe, right? The total value could reach eight years and $51.5 million.
I don’t know. I just can’t imagine any of these working for Witt given his prospect pedigree and the fact that he and his family likely don’t have any real need for a long-term deal right now. But that said…
The Early Deal That Could Actually Be a Data Point
The Braves have a superstar they locked up quickly. After Ronald Acuña Jr. burst onto the scene in 2018 to get MVP votes and win Rookie of the Year, they acted quickly and agreed to a deal between the fourth and fifth games of the next season. It’s a deal for eight years and $100 million and features two team options that could make the deal worth $124 million over 10 years. Even with his injury that cost him about half the year in 2021, it’s a steal.
There are some obvious differences between this deal and one Witt would sign. One is that Acuña had already produced at an exceptionally high level at the big league level and at a year younger than Witt played 2021 in the minors. He also is a bit more patient than Witt and has some more power, though Witt has plenty of power. So it’s not a perfect comparison, but you can probably extrapolate some of the Acuña contract to work for a pre-debut deal for Witt if you squint enough.
The Guys Who Didn’t Sign Deals
The other side to look at is what Witt might be looking to make if he doesn’t sign a deal at any point. He may or may not want to completely bet on himself, but if he does and just goes year-to-year, he has a few players to look at based on their salaries to determine what he might be looking at. I’ll list them alphabetically.
Bellinger made about $1.75 million in his pre-arbitration years and has made $27.6 million so far in his arbitration seasons with an estimated arbitration number of $16.1 million in 2022. That’s a total of six years and about $45.5 million.
Betts made just a touch over $2 million in his pre-arbitration years and then $57.5 million in his three arbitration years. That’s a six-year deal for roughly $60 million.
Prior to signing his six-year deal, Bogaerts had agreed to his final year of arbitration. In the pre-arb years, he made $1.7 million and in his three arbitration years, he would have made $23.55 million. So that’s six years and a bit more than $25 million.
Correa had three and a half years before he hit arbitration and made about $2.5 million in that time. He then made $24.7 million in his three arbitration years, for a surprisingly low total of about $27 million over his six years of team control.
We aren’t all the way through Devers’ arbitration seasons just yet, but we can still look at him as a guy who made about $2 million in his pre-arb years, $4.575 million in his first arbitration year and is projected at $11.1 million in his second. Using that and then giving him something around $16 million for his third arbitration year puts him at about $34 million over six years.
The Yankees haven’t locked Judge up long-term, which is sort of surprising in some ways. He made about $1.85 million pre-arb and has made $18.675 million in his first two years of arbitration with a projected number of $17.1 million in 2022 for a total of about $37.5 million over six years.
Lindor made about $1.75 million before arbitration and then struck gold. He was at $50.35 million in arbitration before his extension with the Mets for a total of six years and roughly $52 million.
This one actually makes a lot of sense because Witt might be a guy sliding over to third from shortstop. Machado was a touch under $1.6 million in pre-arb years and then made $32.5 million in arbitration for about $34 million over six.
Like Devers, Soto hasn’t gone all the way through arbitration, so we have to guess a bit, but he was at roughly the going rate of $1.75 million for three pre-arb years and made $8.5 million last year. He’s projected to make $16.2 million in 2022 and probably somewhere around $25 million in 2023. That’s about $51.5 million over six years.
Story made about $1.6 million in his pre-arb years and $30.5 million in his arbitration years for roughly $32 million over six years.
I’m sure I missed someone, but I wanted to pick out the best of the best who went all the way through arbitration because I don’t think Witt is signing a long-term deal before debuting and looking at average players. The very best of the best made between $45 million and $60 million over their team control years while most were somewhere between $35 and $45 million.
It kind of makes the Robert and Jimenez deals look a little silly in this context because the White Sox likely would have paid them a bit less than their guaranteed numbers. But they also have club options on the back end to keep them longer, so it evens out in the end.
Okay…So What About Witt?
It’s a little easier than I expected after going through all these numbers. We see the Robert deal and Jimenez deal coming in line with what the best of the best made through the process, so it’s sort of cut and dry. Let’s use $600,000 as the minimum salary for 2022 since we don’t know what it’s going to be and assume Witt gets a $100k increase every season.
That means he’d made $2.1 million in his three pre-arb years. And if he’s as good as we all think he’s going to be, he’d find himself starting off at somewhere around $8-$12 million in arbitration. Let’s go with the middle of that at $10 million and then add on a year at $17 million and another at $25 million. That’s $54 million over six years, which is $4 million more than Robert got. This is one area where I think the Royals might be willing to set the market for the biggest contract ever in a category, though I still don’t think they would. They are hit a little harder by $9 million per year than a team like the White Sox could be, but they need Witt to be good so badly that if it doesn’t work out, it might not matter anyway.
Still, teams don’t give extensions based on the top dollar possibility anyway, so I think we might need to scale this back a bit. What if we look at $8 million in the first arbitration year, $14 million in the second and $18 million in the third. Give him a little extra in the first three years, say, $4 million instead of $2 million to balance the last couple of years a bit. That ends up making the deal around $44 million for six years. Add on, say, a $2 million buyout to the first of two options years (because that’s the going rate on these deals) and you’re looking at:
Six years, $46 million guaranteed for 2022-2027
Two option years: $22 million for the first, $25 million for the second with a $2 million buyout on each
Total top value: Eight years, $89 million
I truly have no idea if Witt would even entertain that deal, but it would give the Royals some cost certainty for him over the first six years that they could maybe spread out a bit more than a typical yearly raise and would give Witt a guarantee at more generational money than he already has. If things go south with the team, he has massive trade value all the way through the deal and he could still hit the free agent market following the 2029 season where he’d only be heading into his age-30 season where he could easily get a massive contract. Will it happen? Probably not. But it’s fun to think about.
Photo by Minda Haas Kuhlmann