The KC Royals chose the right path to avoid arbitration with Adalberto Mondesi and Brad Keller.
What arbitration suspense remained for the KC Royals disappeared Friday when the club reached contract agreements with Adalberto Mondesi and Brad Keller. The two stars were the last Kansas City arbitration-eligible players with whom the Royals hadn’t settled, or released or non-tendered.
Both appeared to be candidates for early contract extensions but agreed, on the day they and the club were to exchange arbitration figures, to one-year deals reportedly worth $2.525 million for Mondesi and $3.35 million for Keller.
The decisions to opt for single-year pacts were, for the club, the right ones for the right reasons.
Which of the two players had the best case for an extension is hard to say; both are heavy on potential, both have had good years, and both are clearly in the KC Royals’ long range plans. But the uncertainty hovering over each of them weighs against immediate contract extensions.
This is especially true of Keller, in whom the Royals have far less invested than Mondesi. Keller came to the team via the 2017 Rule 5 draft (albeit indirectly), a path typically not paved with high success probabilities; the Reds plucked him from Arizona in the 2017 Rule 5, then traded him the same day to Kansas City. The 22-yeaar old hadn’t thrown a pitch in the majors, but was 40-32 in 106 minor league games.
Keller’s Rule 5 status carried over from the Reds to the Royals and required Kansas City to keep him on the big league roster for the entire 2018 or risk losing him to the Diamondbacks for a pittance. He didn’t disappoint—he posted an excellent 9-6, 3.08 record, tied Jakob Junis for the staff wins lead, and won the team’s Pitcher of the Year Award.
All that earned Keller the honor of Opening Day starter in 2018. He pitched seven two-hit shutout innings and won, but it was one of his few bright spots that season. He stood 7-14 with a 4.19 ERA when arm fatigue forced the Royals to shut him down in late August.
Despite an abbreviated and rocky spring training (0-1, 14.85 in three games) and a positive COVID-19 test that delayed his first appearance until KC’s 14th game, Keller bounced back last season with a 5-3, 2.47, 1.024 WHIP effort. His rotation-leading wins, ERA, FIP, WHIP and SO/W make him the presumptive, if not established, staff “ace.”
The return to 2018 form doesn’t, however, mandate an early contract extension. Pitching for a bad (103 losses) team doesn’t excuse losing twice as many games as he won in 2019 or that campaign’s ERA increase. Poor club or not, Keller threw the pitches with concerning results. And, as encouraging as 2020 was for Keller, it was also a significantly-shortened campaign—his 5-3 pitching performance in such a truncated season doesn’t entirely erase Keller’s full-season 2019 disappointment.
Keller is, of course, full of talent and potential. But contract extensions must be based more on consistency than promise. Another excellent season should put Keller where he wants to be.
Like Keller, the KC Royals need to see more from Mondesi
If talent and potential were the only early extension prerequisites, Mondesi would have earned one the instant he made his major league debut in the 2015 World Series. Just making the Fall Classic roster with no big league experience proved how good and valuable the Royals believed him to be.
Kansas City still sees in Mondesi what they saw five years ago—he has raw power, an excellent infield arm, great speed, a superb glove and can hit. But, except for 2018, the year he clubbed 14 home runs in 75 games and hit .276, he has yet to put everything together at the plate in one season. Mondesi did hit 20 doubles and tie for the big league lead triples lead with 10 in 2019, but his average dipped to .263 and his .291 OBP stands testament to poor plate discipline.
Then there is the disturbing matter of Mondesi’s 2020. Yes, it was a short campaign warranting some benefit of the doubt for subpar performance, but only a sizzling September saved his season from disaster. Mondesi went from bad (7-for-34 in July) to worse (.179 in August) before exploding in September (.356/.408/.667 with all six of his homers, and 20 of his 22 RBIs, for the season). He finished .256/.294/.416, an unsightly line certainly not befitting the superstar the KC Royals believe he can be.
Of greatest concern is Mondesi’s plate discipline. He’s too aggressive too often, and his impatience accounts for a maddening career .284 OBP that renders remarkable his 99 steals over the past three seasons.
Durability is also a factor. Two shoulder injuries robbed Mondesi of much of his 2019 season and required surgery; less serious injuries have nagged him in the past. Although he played all but one game last season, his health battles can’t be ignored.
Finally, and for both players, there is the critical matter of timing. More pressing needs, such as extending Salvador Perez, require the Royals’ immediate attention and resources. Mondesi and Keller were arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, so neither can test the free agent waters until after the 2023 campaign; because they’re under team control for three more seasons, no urgency or exigency now demand extensions. There is downstream risk, of course: stellar 2021 seasons should increase the costs of future extensions for both players.
Still, not extending Mondesi and Keller this winter is a sensible baseball decision. But when they become more consistent, trust the Royals to come through for both.
Now isn’t the time for the KC Royals to extend Adalberto Mondesi and Brad Keller. But their time should come soon enough.