February 26, 2024

In extending Bobby Witt Jr., Royals make statement signing and ‘can begin to dream a bit’

Bobby Witt Sr. worked 2,621 2/3 professional innings before his first in the World Series. It came in 2001, with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Witt never pitched again. He was 37 years old with four children at home — three daughters and a son, his namesake — and retired a champion.

Bobby Witt Jr. was 16 months old then, too young to have shared the disappointment his father must have felt after all those fruitless seasons. In his own major-league career, with the Kansas City Royals, Witt has weathered more than 200 losses in two last-place seasons. The World Series seems achingly distant.

Yet on Monday, Witt, 23, committed to the Royals through at least 2030. His new contract guarantees him $288.7 million over 11 years, though he’ll have opt-out clauses four years in a row starting after the seventh season. If he declines them all, the Royals could then pick up a three-year option that would carry Witt through 2037 for $377.7 million.

It’s complicated, then, not quite an all-in promise that one of baseball’s most dynamic talents will grow old in Royals’ blue. But seven years — especially for a player who gets so much value from his legs — likely covers the majority of Witt’s prime. His faith in the Royals sends a strong message about the direction of the franchise.

“The energy in Kansas City, especially today at this news, is off the charts,” said Rex Hudler, the former infielder and longtime Royals TV analyst. “It’s just really a breath of fresh air to have a talent like Junior and realize that he sees another World Series here, too, so he went ahead and committed to us.”

Witt was a sensation in 2023, becoming the first player in Royals history with 30 homers and 30 steals in a season. Only one player in the majors could match Witt in both stolen bases (49) and extra-base hits (69) — Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr., the National League’s unanimous Most Valuable Player — and his defense at shortstop improved markedly from his 2022 rookie season.

His on-base percentage, .319, was a point below the major-league average, in keeping with the Royals’ aggressive approach. Otherwise, Witt does everything.

“He’s a generational-type player,” Hudler said. “He hits for power, he hits for average, he’s got a great arm, his fielding is off the charts. And I’ve never seen speed like that before. His feet never touch the ground, they’re light. The baseball IQ is what separates him from these other great, talented young players coming up. He already knows how to play the game.”

Bobby Witt Jr. led the majors in triples last season with 11. (Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today)

The Witt contract follows six Royals free-agent deals this offseason totaling $102.5 million, for starters Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha, relievers Will Smith and Chris Stratton, outfielder Hunter Renfroe and second baseman Adam Frazier. The uptick in spending comes at a strategic moment for Kansas City owner John Sherman.

For competitive-balance tax purposes, the Royals spent $119.4 million on their 40-man payroll last season. That ranked 26th in the majors, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts — not exactly a show of faith to a community that will be asked to help fund a ballpark to replace Kauffman Stadium.

The Royals’ ballpark is a gem, but only five current major-league venues were standing when it opened in 1973: Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium and the doomed Oakland Coliseum. The team has a Feb. 29 deadline to reveal the site location for a proposed new park, ahead of an April 2 ballot measure in Jackson County, Mo., on the extension of a stadium sales tax to help the Royals and Chiefs.

The Chiefs, of course, are the NFL’s reigning power. But the Royals, despite seven losing seasons in a row, still stand as a hopeful symbol in a league without a salary cap. Although 13 different franchises have won the World Series in the past 20 years, Kansas City is the only one from a so-called small market.

The Royals, who had lost the World Series to the Giants in 2014, won it against the Mets in 2015. In the weak American League Central, their path back to the postseason may be smoother than most.

“They’re playing in a division right now that, let’s be honest, isn’t very good,” said Denny Matthews, the Hall of Fame broadcaster who has called Royals games since the franchise was founded in 1969. “There’s no big power in the American League Central, not even close. So all you have to do is beat four other teams.

“That’s pretty workable. You can begin to dream a little bit about that. Pieces fall into place, and all of a sudden there you are.”

The Royals had hoped not to take so long between eras of contention. But their plan to build with first-round college pitchers fizzled, and last season they used veterans Jordan Lyles and Zack Greinke for 320 innings. The duo combined to go 8-32 with a 5.74 ERA.

Cole Ragans, though, was outstanding in 12 starts after a trade from Texas for Aroldis Chapman, and Lugo and Wacha combined for a 3.40 ERA across 280 innings for San Diego. Smith and Stratton are coming off a championship with the Rangers. There’s reason for guarded optimism in the short term, and a leader locked in for the long term.

So it’s safe to buy that Bobby Witt Jr. jersey. And if you squint, you just might conjure a World Series patch on the sleeve someday, too.

“How far will he go?” Matthews said. “Nobody knows; he doesn’t know. But he works hard and he wants to be better. It’s going to be fun to watch.”



Rosenthal: Bobby Witt Jr. extension shows small-market teams can and should make big moves

(Top photo of Bobby Witt Jr.: Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)