I can hear the whispers already, from other small-market clubs and perhaps even from Major League Baseball:
This is an outlier. John Sherman is a new owner. The Kansas City Royals are trying to secure public financing for a new ballpark. Most low-revenue teams cannot make this kind of investment.
Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.’s 11-year, $288.7 extension is precisely the kind of deal low-revenue teams can make, have made and should continue to make in the near future.
Every club, no matter the size of its market, is more than capable of locking up at least one star player for $100 million-plus. Just consider these contracts from the past three years:
• Corbin Carroll, Arizona Diamondbacks, eight years, $111 million.
• Bryan Reynolds, Pittsburgh Pirates, eight years, $106.75 million.
• José Ramírez, Cleveland Guardians, seven years, $141 million.
• Julio Rodríguez, Seattle Mariners, 12 years, $209.3 million.
• Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays, 11 years, $182 million.
• Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies, eight years, $260 million.
• Fernando Tatis Jr, San Diego Padres, 14 years, $340 million.
Go back further, and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich ($210 million), Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton ($325 million), Reds’ Joey Votto ($225 million) and Twins’ Joe Mauer ($184 million) are other examples.
Inevitably, some of these contracts work out better than others. None mean the concern over payroll disparity in baseball is overblown. But when fans say, “NFL teams can keep their stars and baseball teams can’t,” it’s an oversimplification.
Witt now becomes the Royals’ version of Patrick Mahomes, in a sport without a salary cap, a sport in which teams draw primarily from local revenues, not national. The Royals also have catcher Sal Perez on an $82 million deal, and they spent a combined $109.5 million this offseason on seven free agents.
A commitment to our fans, our city, and our team. pic.twitter.com/JzDBydFIWW
— Kansas City Royals (@Royals) February 5, 2024
Commitment, what a concept.
These deals always carry risk. It might not work for the Royals with Witt. It didn’t work for the Marlins with Stanton, or for the Rockies with Arenado. And it has yet to work for the Padres, whose late owner, Peter Seidler, invested big money not only in Tatis, but also Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts. But for certain teams that continue to operate on the cheap, even as they draw tens of millions in revenue sharing, the excuses go only so far.
No one should pretend the playing field is level. Some executives from low-revenue clubs, citing the Los Angeles Dodgers’ spending this offseason and the New York Mets’ spending before that, believe their competitive challenges are becoming even greater. The uncertainty numerous teams face in their future local television revenues further complicates matters.
Let’s not forget, the Guardians traded shortstop Francisco Lindor before they kept Ramírez. The Rays have moved one star pitcher after another in financially-motivated deals. The Milwaukee Brewers just traded 2021 National League Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes, 18 months after trading three-time NL reliever of the year Josh Hader.
In some cases, though, the circumstances are extenuating. Burnes is only one year from free agency. He is represented by Scott Boras, who generally prefers his clients to establish their values on the open market.
The chances of Burnes agreeing to an extension with Boras as his agent were almost zero. The chances of the Brewers outbidding high-revenue teams for him as a free agent probably were not much higher. A trade, at least, enabled them to get two major-league-ready players and a draft pick for Burnes, as opposed to just a pick if they made him a qualifying offer.
The Baltimore Orioles are likely to face similar obstacles if they attempt to extend American League Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson, who also is represented by Boras but much further away from free agency. Witt, in theory, could serve as a comp for Henderson. The Orioles’ new ownership, like the Royals’ Sherman, might be motivated to act. But Baltimore’s chances of striking a long-term deal are probably better with catcher Adley Rutschman, who is represented by a different agency, the Beverly Hills Sports Council.
Not every low-revenue team will keep every star. Heck, not every high-revenue team keeps every star. But the Witt extension demonstrates anew that the sport is not completely off-kilter, even as the Dodgers’ $1 billion offseason renews cries among some fans for a salary cap.
A cap does not assure competitive balance in leagues that operate with one. And it does not appear a remote possibility for MLB anytime soon.
The current labor agreement does not expire until Dec. 1, 2026. The baseball players’ union remains adamantly opposed to a cap. The only way the league will hold out for one in the next round of negotiations is if it is prepared for a lengthy work stoppage. Which, with the sport enjoying something of a renaissance thanks to last year’s rules changes, it almost certainly is not.
Other changes to enhance competitive balance should be further explored. The awarding of additional draft picks to low-revenue clubs. A penalty system at the bottom of the payroll structure that operates similarly to the luxury-tax system at the top. And additional ideas generated by greater minds than mine.
The Royals play in the game’s third smallest media market and just guaranteed Bobby Witt nearly $300 million.
Don’t call it an outlier. It should be common practice, for owners who actually care.
(Photo of Bobby Witt Jr.: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)