KC Royals pitcher Brad Keller is eligible for arbitration. Should the club extend him?
After any other season, KC Royals starter Brad Keller could expect a lucrative contract extension. He reclaimed his role as staff ace in 2020, reconfirmed his wealth of talent, and is arbitration eligible for the first time, all of which would usually make him a prime candidate for an early, pre-free agency extension.
But these are no ordinary times. COVID-19 shortened baseball’s season, sidelined players, forced fans out of the stands, and exacted a toll on the game’s finances sure to impact the sport for years to come. Most clubs won’t be able to spend lavishly on free agents, big contracts, or expensive extensions; for teams facing major personnel and payroll decisions, “prioritize” now means more than ever.
And that includes the KC Royals, a franchise known for its frugality and less than successful long-term deals. Whether or not Brad Keller deserves an extension (more on that later) isn’t the main question; whether the Royals, considering all the circumstances, should give him one is. It all comes down to money.
No one outside a select few insiders know just what the franchise bottom line is, but two things are certain: as a small-market team with a dismal recent record, the Royals weren’t swimming in cash to begin with, and the pandemic made the situation worse. The combination of Alex Gordon’s retirement and the sure-to-be-permanent departure of Ian Kennedy frees up about $20 million in payroll, and Kansas City can save lesser amounts by wisely cutting ties with Matt Harvey, Mike Montgomery and Bubba Starling.
But those moves won’t completely refill the coffers and, even if the Royals decide to reinvest all that $20-plus million in their major league roster, it might not go as far as they’d like. Keller, Jorge Soler, Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier, Maikel Franco, Jakob Junis, Jesse Hahn and Franchy Cordero are all eligible for arbitration and it’s a good bet the Royals prefer to keep them all and not non-tender anyone. General manager Dayton Moore lives to avoid arbitration, so a good chunk of the Gordon-Kennedy savings must go toward that end.
Then come the matters of Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy, two KC staples and favorites who’ll play out their current contracts next season. Expect owner/CEO John Sherman to make extending team backbone Perez a top priority; while Duffy retiring a Royal is probably a mutual goal, it may not be achievable and will depend on the veteran hurler’s 2021 performance, especially the pre-trade deadline portion of the season. Retaining both, or either, player will be expensive.
So, too, will be an extension for Keller, but a new deal for the 25-year old right-hander makes some sense. Without one, Keller is eligible for arbitration this year and the next two, and for free agency after that. Arbitration is a risky, winner-take-all proposition—a neutral arbitrator weighs the player’s salary proposal against the club’s, picks one over the other, and the decision binds the parties without recourse. Free agency, always subject to the vagaries of a fluid and sometimes volatile market, is fraught with even more uncertainty.
Keller and the Royals, then, have incentive to make a mutually beneficial deal, much like the extension the club gave Duffy just before the 2017 season that essentially bought out his then-impending arbitration and delayed his free agency, all the while securing the pitcher’s financial future. But has Keller earned an extension, and should the franchise move forward with one?
The answer to the first question is clear: Yes, Brad Keller deserves an extension, which wasn’t the case after the 2019 season. A year ago, just a season after being the KC Royals’ Pitcher of the Year as a rookie, Keller suffered through a 7-14 campaign; this season, despite a bout with COVID-19 that caused him to miss at least his first three starts, Keller rebounded with a 5-3, 2.47 (186 ERA+) record. His win total, ERA, 1.024 WHIP, 3.43 FIP, 2.06 SO/W and 1.7 WAR were club bests.
Keller redeemed himself, albeit in a short season, and the Royals should wrap him in a long-term deal as soon as they can.
But that time isn’t now. Baseball is, in the final analysis, a business, and hard financial times force businesses to reexamine and reshuffle priorities. Sherman and Moore have the Royals close to winning and should strive to keep the team nucleus, including their arbitration-eligible players, intact, and to add a starting pitcher and a strong bat. Money, though, is short, and management needs to avoid unnecessary expenses and spend first for what’s needed most.
It may sound harsh, but extending Keller now would be an unnecessary expense. He’s under club control through 2023, so extending him at this moment, with the significant compensation increase it would require, isn’t absolutely essential.
For now, there are higher priorities. Keller will eventually get his due and he and the club will be glad when it happens. His payday is coming; the KC Royals will see to that, just as they did when Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield deserved more than they were getting.
Brad Keller will get a contract extension, but it shouldn’t be today. The KC Royals have other needs requiring more immediate attention.