It’s Aug. 18, 2023. My friend and I had bought last-minute tickets to see the Chicago Cubs play the Kansas City Royals at Wrigley Field. A Cubs win should have been a safe bet — they had been playing good baseball since mid-July, but more importantly, Kansas City was an abysmal 39–84. Unfortunately, Bobby Witt Jr. had other ideas.
All I knew about Witt when I walked into Wrigley that day was that he had been a highly touted prospect who hadn’t quite lived up to expectations the year prior and struggled with the glove. I soon learned that the latter one was rather outdated, as evidenced by my utter disbelief when he made several stellar defensive plays at shortstop in the game. I also learned of his power, as he hit a go-ahead two-run homer that ended up being the difference in the game, and his speed, shown by a routine ground ball that he legged out for an infield hit. Long story short — this kid can play.
In 2023, Witt improved on his rather disappointing rookie campaign in every way. His average jumped from .254 to .276, his OPS from .722 to .813, home runs from 20 to 30 and stolen bases from 30 to 49, while he struck out 121 times with 40 walks in 2023 compared to 135 and 30 in 2022, respectively. Most impressively, his outs above average, a measure of defensive value, improved from -11 to 14. That’s a jump from the 2nd percentile to the 98th percentile. Those numbers were good enough to earn him a No. 7 finish in AL MVP voting.
But the 23-year-old Witt would earn a lot more than down-ballot MVP votes thanks to his performance. On Feb. 5, it was announced that he and the Royals agreed on an 11-year, $288 million contract extension with player options after the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th years and a club option after the 11th year, which could bring the contract’s total value to $377 million. Even before the options, it’s the 23rd-largest contract by total value in sports history, and it was handed out by a team that had baseball’s seventh-lowest payroll in 2023. Needless to say, it was a shocking move.
Setting aside the element of surprise, I absolutely love this extension. It provides a sense of direction for a franchise that has been rather directionless since winning the World Series in 2015, the last time they made the playoffs or had a winning season. With attendance declining since then, something signaling a will to compete needed to be done.
$288 million is a lot of money for a guy entering just his third season, especially considering that Julio Rodríguez, who has been unequivocally better than Witt over the past two years and is also entering his third season, only got $210 million guaranteed over 12 years from the Mariners in 2022. But Witt’s lethal combination of power and speed gives him 40-40 potential and a Gold Glove could easily be in his future, so the upside is tremendous. Even if it is a big gamble, the Royals needed a move like this, and it has the potential to be the blueprint for other small-market teams going forward.