Big new deal shouldn't push KC Royals to extend Bobby Witt Jr.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Whether to extend Bobby Witt Jr.'s contract is a fascinating question, fertile fodder for endless social media debate and an issue the KC Royals themselves are naturally certain to be considering.

After all, and with less than two full minor league seasons under his belt, Witt broke in with the Royals last Opening Day already tagged by many as not the future of the franchise, but instead as the franchise itself.

In ways, he lived up to the hype. He hit 20 home runs, had 80 RBIs, stole 30 bases, and doubled 31 times. But in others, especially his .254 average, .294 OBP, and shaky defense at shortstop, his natural position, he didn't. Witt's claim to "The Franchise" title may turn out to be legitimate, but for now he has more than one rough edge to sharpen.

That there's work yet to be done doesn't squelch early extension talk, though. Major league clubs extending players far short of free agency eligibility (Witt can't test the waters until after the 2027 season) were all but unheard of until recently. Buoyed, however, by the startling 12-year deal the Mariners suddenly gave Julio Rodríguez last year before he'd even hit the final month of his rookie campaign, a lucrative arrangement guaranteed to pay him at least $209.3 million, the practice is becoming more frequent.

Now Washington, mired in the National League East cellar since winning the 2019 World Series, has joined the early extension club by agreeing to an eight-year, $50 million contract with Keibert Ruiz, a fine catcher whose 143 games over parts of three seasons with the Dodgers and Nats are seven less than Witt played last year. While Ruiz's 2022 offensive work was better than Witt's in one respect ( .313 OBP), it wasn't in critical others (seven homers, 36 RBIs). (Ruiz missed almost the entire final month of the season, but still wouldn't have approached Witt's numbers if he hadn't).

Without this new contract, and barring any others signed by him or Witt, Ruiz would have joined Witt in first-time free agency eligibility after the 2027 season. Should Ruiz's deal spur the Royals to action with Witt?

The KC Royals shouldn't be fazed by Washington's new arrangement with Ruiz.

Rarely has Kansas City, a franchise historically, and sometimes maddeningly, unwilling to divorce itself from frugality, been bold enough to bestow lucrative contracts on pre-free agency players. The five-season $65 million deal the club gave Danny Duffy to avoid arbitration and his first potential dive into free agency still stands out as the most notable exception.

Now, though, and considering the industry's changing landscape when it comes to granting early extensions, should the Royals deviate from their norm and wrap Witt up with a long-term deal?

Seriously considering such a move makes some sense for both parties. An early extension would give Witt and his family permanent financial security and spare him short-term uncertainty and the down-the-road distraction of negotiating an extension when arbitration and free agency eligibility loom. And doing a deal now with Witt would lock up KC's potentially best player for years to come.

Witt, though, may want to hold off. A monster 2023 season will increase his leverage and value, perhaps exponentially. Kansas City may also be thinking delay, wanting to see Witt for another full season before committing to what will certainly surpass the $82 million the club gave Salvador Perez two years ago in the team's most expensive deal ever.

Only Witt, principal owner John Sherman, and general manager J.J. Picollo know whether franchise and player are talking extension. The right deal might tempt Witt, but he'll also realize waiting could benefit him more. The same is true of the Royals, who bear the risk of Witt underperforming or suffering serious injury.

One thing, though, is certain. The Royals have never been a club prone to regularly take big risks, or to follow contract trends set by franchises more willing to spend money than they are. The Witt case warrants such careful consideration that Keibert Ruiz's situation, and the fan pressure it might spark, shouldn't sway Sherman and Picollo one way or the other. Any Witt deal should be considered on its own merits.

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