Tough arbitration decisions face KC Royals, Moore

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KC Royals
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Four KC Royals deserve extension consideration. But will the club offer extensions to any of them?

The winter of 2017 saw the KC Royals bracing for the inevitable post-season departures for free agency of Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar, and preparing for arbitration with Danny Duffy. Instead, they signed Duffy to a five-year, $65 million contract extension that also delayed his first venture into free agency.

The club now faces another, but more urgent, Duffy-like situation. Four of its stars are arbitration eligible; three will be free agents after the 2023 season, and one after next season. Whether arbitration-avoiding extensions are appropriate for them is the question.

Brad Keller.  Keller overcame COVID-19 and the memories of a bad 2019 season to reclaim his spot as the ace of Kansas City’s rotation in 2020. A positive COVID test robbed him of the first two weeks of the season, but he won his first three starts and finished 5-3 with a rotation-leading 2.47 ERA. He also led Royal starters in wins, WHIP, FIP, SO/W and pitching WAR. Keller put his forgettable 2019 7-14 campaign in the past and revived the good memories of his 2018 Royals Pitcher of the Year season.

Keller deserves an extension. He’s a key to the future and, according to MLBTR, should get $2.4 million or $4.3 million in arbitration. (His 2020 base was $613,000). But he needs to wait for the lucrative long-term extension that will eventually be his—the club’s immediate needs include a veteran starter and an established bat, and it will need money to get them. Keller’s under team control and the franchise can afford to delay his big day. But it should make him a fair offer along the lines of MLBTR’s projections.

Adalberto Mondesi.  For most of 2020, a raise, significant arbitration award, or contract extension were unrealistic for Mondesi. Although he seemed to steal a base or two every time he got on, getting on was something he seldom did. Then came September: after hitting .206 in July and .179 in August, Mondesi set baseball afire with a .356/.408/.667 slash (1.075 OPS) and swiped 16 bases to give him a major league-leading 24. He finished the season at .256 and played Gold Glove caliber defense.

Mondesi’s base salary was $604,500; MLBTR apparently thinks his September and glove work justifies an arbitration award of $2.1 or $3.8 million. Should the Royals, on the merits of his inarguable five-tool potential, some past good play, and sizzling September, avoid the risk of arbitration and buy out the first years of his free agency? He’ll be a free agent after the 2023 season.

No. Mondesi’s situation is the same as Keller’s—he isn’t going anywhere unless the KC Royals trade or release him and they’re not about to do either. An extension would come at a steep price and the club needs money for other things. Mondesi’s day will come soon; in the meantime, look for the Royals to give him a short-term deal well worth his while.

Hunter Dozier.  Dozier’s breakout 2019 season—a big league-leading 10 triples, 26 homers, 84 RBIs and .279 average—seemed sufficient to secure his claim to third base. But the club’s winter acquisition of Maikel Franco forced Dozier to the outfield; then, its dissatisfaction with the Ryans (O’Hearn and McBroom) triggered Dozier’s move to first. His 2020 play there brought rave reviews from manager Mike Matheny.

Dozier’s lackluster season at the plate (.228/.344/.392) can be blamed in part on his missing almost the first third of the season after testing positive for COVID-19. But his six homers in 44 games, which extrapolates to 22 over a full 162-game slate, and his stellar play at a new position likely underlie MLBTR’s arbitration projections of $1.9 and $2.9 million, significant bumps from his $610,500 2020 base.

Those may be numbers the Royals are willing to risk. Dozier has power but his bat remains inconsistent, so the club may not be quite ready to jump him up into even the $4-5 million per year range. And he’s less of an extension candidate than Keller or Mondesi.

Jorge Soler.  Jorge Soler finally became in 2019 the player the KC Royals wanted him to be when they traded Wade Davis to the Cubs in 2016 to get him. He played every game, smashed 48 home runs to lead the league and break the club’s single-season record, drove in 117 runs, slashed a respectable .265/.354/.569 and posted a 138 OPS+. His six homers and 24 RBIs this season extrapolates to respective regular season marks of about 30 and 90; MLBTR projects an arbitration award of $7.4 or $9.2 million. (His base was $7.3 million).

Soler’s would be an extension the Royals can justify. He’s eligible for free agency after the 2021 campaign, so they’ll need to extend him or risk losing his considerable, un-Royal-like power (unless, of course, they’re banking on Soler having a good first-half next season so he’ll be attractive at the trade deadline). Soler will turn 29 about the time spring training starts, so he should have a few productive seasons left.

But if the Royals aren’t interested in trading Soler, the right financial move might be to offer him a modest raise—if MLBTR’s projections are accurate, the risk might pay off.

dark. Next. Asa Lacy won't be rushed

The approach the KC Royals take to their 11 arbitration-eligible players depends on several factors. Financial considerations will drive their decisions.