Rebuilds don’t always take as long as some might expect. In 2021, Major League Baseball’s three worst records belonged to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles. The first two teams just competed in the World Series. The last was the top seed in the American League last year and remains one of this year’s favorites.
The turnaround tactics varied. The Rangers spent their way back to contention. The Diamondbacks found linchpins in Zac Gallen and Corbin Carroll and surrounded them with savvy acquisitions. The Orioles cultivated one of the sport’s dynamic young cores. Teams’ methods will depend on ownership’s financial commitments and their ability to identify and develop talent.
But there’s one foolproof practice every team can employ, regardless of payroll, market size or prospect hit rate: make sure young generational talents don’t leave.
Which brings us to Kansas City and 23-year-old Bobby Witt Jr.’s 11-year, $288.7 million extension, a deal that shattered the Royals’ previous record contract of $82 million given to Salvador Pérez in 2021. It’s the latest encouraging example of the sport’s shifting paradigm when it comes to smaller-market teams finding ways to keep their franchise cornerstones.
For a while, extensions like Witt’s would’ve seemed unfathomable. During the 2010s, only three players under the age of 25 — Texas’ Elvis Andrus (2013), Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman (2014) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (2019) — signed extensions of at least eight years. Andrus and Freeman were 24-year-old All-Stars who had already established themselves as consistent forces.
Acuña, meanwhile, was just 21 years old and 115 games into his major-league career when the Braves inked him to an eight-year, $100 million deal, which made him the youngest player in baseball history to sign a nine-figure extension. The deal paved the path for the plethora of team-friendly extensions to come in Atlanta (including, later that month, Ozzie Albies’ ludicrous seven-year, $35 million deal). Other teams, particularly in smaller markets, seemed to take notice.
The four largest extensions given to players under the age of 25 have all happened since 2021, when baseball’s most eye-opening wager took place. That year, the Padres committed $340 million over 14 years to 22-year-old Fernando Tatís Jr., marking the largest deal for a player before arbitration. A year later, two 21-year-olds cashed in. Seattle gave Julio Rodriguez a 12-year, $209.3 million extension, while Atlanta handed Michael Harris II an eight-year, $72 million extension less than three months into his major-league career.
Last year, Carroll’s eight-year, $111-million pact became the largest contract for any player with fewer than 100 days of service time. More ground was broken two months ago, when the Brewers committed eight years and $82 million to 19-year-old prospect Jackson Chourio, marking the largest contract ever for a player yet to make his debut.
Long-term commitments to young players aren’t foolproof, as the Rays are dealing with after handing out their largest contract ever in 2021 to a 20-year-old Wander Franco, who might never set foot on a major-league field again. But far more often than not, the gambles have paid off.
Why Bobby Witt Jr.’s extension is good for Royals and MLB
In 2004, the Cardinals inked a 24-year-old Albert Pujols to a seven-year, $100 million extension. He was named MVP three times during that stretch. That deal included a team option for 2011, which the Cardinals exercised on their way to another World Series championship. Count future Hall of Famers Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout among the list of players under the age of 25 to ink nine-figure extensions.
Increasingly now, teams are seeing value in making calculated bets on their best young players, which remains the best way for small- and mid-market clubs to find creative ways to keep their superstars at a potentially far below-market rate.
Witt’s captivating deal applies.
His $288 million guarantee is the second largest for a pre-arb player behind only Tatís. It might be best to view Witt’s deal more like a seven-year pact. The contract will reportedly allow him to opt out after the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th years, making him eligible to cash in on another megadeal in his 30s. If he is the player many assume, it’s hard to imagine he won’t renegotiate or test free agency at that point.
If he does make it through year 11, there is a club option that would add three more years at $89 million, bringing the total value of the deal to 14 years and $377 million. While those numbers might seem hefty, remember that he likely would have commanded far more on the open market if his career continued at its current trajectory.
The Royals just bought themselves seven years to put a winning product around one of the game’s most promising young stars. For a team that hasn’t had an MVP since George Brett in 1980, hasn’t had a winning season since hoisting the World Series trophy in 2015 and is trying to convince its city to build a new stadium, it’s a worthy bet on one of the game’s most dynamic talents.
Witt, who was one year away from arbitration, just completed the first season of at least 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in Royals history while leading the majors with 11 triples and finishing seventh in American League MVP voting at just 23 years old. He is now the only player in MLB history with 50 homers and 79 stolen bases through his first two seasons. Most importantly, for a team trying to project his potential, he got better across the board from his rookie year. He barreled more balls, hit 10 more homers, cut his strikeout rate from 21.4% to 17.4% and increased his slash line from .254/.294/.428 in 2022 to .276/.319/.495 in 2023, all while morphing into one of the elite defensive shortstops in the game.
Coming off a 56-win season, the Royals started this offseason demonstrating to Witt their intentions of lifting themselves out of the doldrums by committing more than $100 million to seven free agents. While their payroll still clocks in at the bottom half of the sport, it represents a significant step forward from where they were. Now, in a wide-open AL Central, anything feels possible.
Of course, Witt’s new deal doesn’t guarantee success in Kansas City. The Royals have a lot more work to do in order to create a contender, and for every Carroll or Acuña extension, there is a Giancarlo Stanton or Nolan Arenado. But for a team that once traded away Carlos Beltrán and Zack Greinke in their primes, Witt represents a new bedrock of promise and stability — and a reason to tune in for the rest of this decade. It’s an encouraging trend.
While payroll disparities around the sport remain an issue, no longer are places such as Arizona or Kansas City or San Diego or Milwaukee or Cleveland or Pittsburgh simply breeding grounds for the game’s most promising talents to develop before getting their paydays elsewhere.
If the Royals can make this kind of commitment, so can any club.
Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and MLB as a whole for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.
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