An already historic spending offseason for the Kansas City Royals got a whole lot bigger on Monday afternoon, as word broke that the team was in agreement with young superstar shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. on a mammoth 11-year, $288.7 million contract extension. Witt Jr. himself confirmed the news, Jordan Belfort style:
The deal guarantees the 23-year-old more than all but 15 players in baseball history — it’s also the second largest for a pre-arbitration player, behind Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year, $340 million deal while also offering plenty of flexibility on the back-end. Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Witt can opt out after the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th years should he want to cash in again in free agency. Should he stick around, there’s also a club option after the 11th season that would tack on three years and $89 million to the contract — giving it a 14-year, $377 million ceiling. The Royals also included a no-trade clause, allowing Witt to choose his destination should Kansas City try and move him in the future.
If Witt keeps playing like he did last season, though, that point seems moot. Regarded as one of the top prospects in the game from pretty much the moment Kansas City took him second overall in the 2019 draft: He was the Minor League Player of the Year in 2021, and everyone from the city’s mayor, Quinton Lucas, to the recently crowned NCAA champion Kansas men’s basketball team came out to see his big-league debut on Opening Day of 2022 — a miracle for a franchise that had spent several years in the rebuilding wilderness. Witt had an uneven rookie season, but he made good on that promise and then some in 2023, slashing .276/.319/.495 (120 OPS+) with 30 homers, 49 steals and a league-leading 11 triples while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at short. Of all the young five-tool stars popping up around the league these days, few shone brighter, or could do more on a baseball field.
All of which set up a monumentally important offseason for the Royals, both competitively and existentially. Witt was set to hit arbitration after the 2024 season, starting the clock on his pending free agency — and creating space for speculation that K.C. would be forced to trade its franchise cornerstone rather than lose him to a more-moneyed suitor for nothing. The extension also comes just two months before a ballot referendum in Jackson County, Missouri, which would extend a three-eighths-of-a-cent tax to help fund a new downtown Kansas City stadium for the Royals (and renovate Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Chiefs). On the heels of yet another 100-loss season — the team’s third in the last six years — it was vital for new owner John Sherman and GM J.J. Picollo to sell the city and their biggest star on the future.
The winter got off to a good start, with deals for pitchers Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha bolstering the team’s rotation and offering proof that this new leadership would, in fact, be willing to spend money. It also showed Witt that a more competitive roster is possible in Kansas City, and that the organization was building something worth sticking around for.
Well either the team is laying a metaphorical foundation, or our best players have retired to take up bricklaying. pic.twitter.com/o5Iyl0nacq— Royals Review (@royalsreview) December 12, 2023
And now Sherman and Co. have crossed off the biggest item on the to-do list, ensuring one of the best players in the game will be a Royal for the long haul. This is the sort of deal a team like the Royals — which will rarely be a big free-agent player, willingness to spend or not — has to be willing to hand out if it hopes to build a lasting contender, and it’s one that’s become increasingly common in recent years. Only six previous players with two or fewer years in the Majors had been given nine-figure deals; all were All-Stars, and all have come over the last few years: Tatis Jr. (14 years, $340 million), Julio Rodriguez (12 years, $209 million), Wander Franco (11 years, $182 million), Mike Trout (six years, $144.5 million), Corbin Carroll (eight years, $111 million) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (eight years, $100 million).
Witt may not be the best player on that list — that honor probably goes to Rodriguez or Acuña — but he’s not far off, and the size of this deal signals the show of faith that the young shortstop is taking on tying himself to Kansas City for the better part of the next decade (at least). This is an organization that has gone 121-203 in his two years in the Majors, and has struggled to draft and develop good players to put around him despite several chances toward the top of the MLB Draft. Now, though, the vision is starting to become clearer: With Witt and Vinnie Pasquantino anchoring the infield and Lugo, Wacha and 2023 breakout Cole Ragans forming a solid foundation for the rotation, Kansas City can start sniffing contention in the very winnable AL Central as soon as this year.