When it comes to arbitration-eligible players, the Royals pretty much have everything locked up. As of now, according to Roster Resource payroll data, only Brad Keller and Adalberto Mondesi have not come to an official “agreement” with the Royals, though contract discussions are obviously still in work, as they were not “non-tendered” by the non-tender deadline (unlike Maikel Franco). According to Roster Resource, it is projected that the Royals will offer Keller a deal with an AAV (average annual value) of $3.35 million, and Mondesi a deal with an AAV of $2.95 million.
The Keller deal most likely will be a one-year affair, especially with the Royals possessing so much pitching depth in their system. Furthermore, Keller has succeeded since being acquired by the Royals in the Rule 5 Draft in 2017 despite questionable metrics, as his ERA has consistently outperformed his FIP (career 3.50 ERA; 3.90 FIP) and his career 1.85 K/BB ratio isn’t necessarily promising either. Clint Scoles of Royals Academy had this to say about a possible Keller extension, and honestly, I am in complete agreement with him:
David Lesky wrote a great piece at Royals Review on a contract extension for Keller, coming up with a five year $52m offer with an extension to push it to 6-68m. It’s a fair deal and can be considered logical, but I’m still waiting and see mode with him. Keller has flashed at times, but the K-rate is reminiscent of Mike Leake without the lower walk rate. At this point, we can’t be sure he can give Leake’s inning totals. A bump back to 2019 HR rate for Keller, and he’s right there in Leake range, and that’s a pitcher that I wouldn’t want to guarantee that deal as the Royals may have more coming down the pipeline.“Minor Thoughts 12/18/20” by Craig Scoles; Royals Academy
While it may be better to go “year to year” with Keller when it comes to offering an extension, Mondesi is a more interesting and challenging case for the Royals front office. Mondesi is 25 and will be 26 in July, and though he has proven to be one of the most proficient base-stealing threats in the American League, his hitting has been a roller coaster of sorts. Since being called up in 2016, Mondesi has accumulated 1,176 plate appearances in 308 games, and in that sample, he is averaging a wOBA of .296, a wRC+ of 82, and has accumulated a WAR of 5.8.
The metrics are not bad by any measure, but Royals fans have been hoping for more since the former top prospect and “bonus baby” international signing hit 14 home runs and posted a 114 wRC+ in 291 plate appearances in 2018. Unfortunately, over the past two years, Mondesi has posted wRC+ metrics of 82 and 89 in 2019 and 2020, respectively, though injuries did factor in the past two seasons.
And thus, Dayton Moore and the Royals have a tough decision to make: Mondesi plays a premium position and not only has performed decently (though that may be a bit optimistic), but still presents considerable upside considering his multi-tool skill set. However, do the Royals give him an extension and buy out his arbitration years? Or do they ride it out year to year, much like they (likely) will do with Keller?
If one had to guess, it’s likely that Mondesi will receive an extension, especially if former shortstop Alcides Escobar, and his contract extension, serve as precedent in negotiations.
In March of 2012, the Royals extended a 25-year-old Escobar to a four-year extension worth $10.5 million with two club options that would total $21.75 million. At the time, Escobar had only played two full seasons in the Majors, which included one in Milwaukee in 2010 and one in Kansas City in 2011 (he did play in 38 games in 2009 and 8 games in 2008, both seasons with the Brewers). Unfortunately, he hadn’t really “impressed” at the Major League level by any measure. While he had flashed an above average glove, and had some baserunning potential, Escobar, a former top prospect in Milwaukee, had underwhelmed at the plate with both the Brewers and Royals in his first three seasons in the big leagues. From 2009-2011 in 341 games, Escobar averaged a wRC+ of 73 and accumulated a 2.7 WAR in three seasons, with most of his value coming from his defensive prowess, as he was 16.8 runs above average according to Fangraphs’ Def rating in 2011.
However, despite his “questionable” hitting production early on in his career, Moore took a financial risk on the shortstop and Escobar ended up being a key cog in the Royals’ turn around in the coming years. From 2012-2015, the length of his original extension, Escobar averaged a wRC+ of 76 and accumulated 8.6 wins above replacement. He also produced an amazing 2015 season for the Royals which also saw him earn a Gold Glove, an All-Star game appearance, and MVP honors in the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Royals exercised their two club options of an additional $11.75 million over the next two seasons. He did regress, as he only averaged a 68 wRC+ in 2016 and 2017, and only accumulated 0.6 WAR. Thus, Escobar didn’t provide as much value to the Royals over the end of his contract, but considering the Royals were trying to protect their World Series championship, it is not surprising that the Royals overpaid after Escobar’s initial extension expired.
Moore is known for giving club options in his contracts (even Mike Minor has such an option). That being said, recent history has shown that he has been less willing to exercise them, as evidenced by them declining Alex Gordon’s club option after the 2019 season (though they did re-negotiate another, more team-friendly deal). So, if Moore did offer an Escobar-like contract extension to Mondesi, it probably would only encompass his remaining arbitration-eligible years, unless Mondesi really outperforms over the next three years of his possible deal.
If the Royals look at Escobar as precedent, then Moore should extend Mondesi and buy out his arbitration-eligible years with a similar deal to Escobar’s, if not slightly more. Escobar’s initial extension had an AAV of $2.5, and his wRC+ and WAR entering arbitration eligibility was 9 points and 3.1 wins lower than Mondesi’s at the same point in his carer. And thus, a deal worth $3.5 to $4 million in AAV over the next three years would be a reasonable investment that could generate some value for the Royals, especially since Mondesi has more power and baserunning upside than Escobar did back in 2012.
Of course, it is likely that Mondesi’s camp also knows the Escobar precedent and may be arguing for more than that $3.5 to $4 million AAV mark, which is why Royals fans have not seen a deal made just yet. It is understandable that the Royals may not be willing to go beyond that mark: Mondesi’s plate approach (0.14 career BB/K ratio) and questionable contact rates (career 64.6 contact rate) still make him a huge risk, and the regression of Chicago Cubs infielder Javier Baez, who poses a similar skill set to Mondesi at the plate (low walk and contact rates), should make the Royals weary that Mondesi may not live up to his potential “superstar hype” over the duration of such an extension.
Any potential Mondesi deal may take a while, for Escobar’s deal didn’t happen until March back in 2012. While I’m not sure it will take that long, it seems likely that any Mondesi extension, whether it’s short-term or long-term, won’t be announced until after the new year. What gives the Royals leverage in this situation is the presence of shortstop prospect Bobby Witt, Jr., who made considerable gains at the Alternate Site in 2020. While Mondesi may be the better defensive option at shortstop, it’s close, and it’s not hard to imagine that Witt’s presence, and possible ascension to Kansas City in 2021 or 2022, definitely hurts a lot of the leverage Mondesi’s team has in negotiations.
Nonetheless, it would be foolish for Moore and Mondesi to not come up with some kind of “Escobar-like” extension soon. While Mondesi has been up and down, he is finally healthy and finished 2020 strong, looking like the player he was in the second half of 2018. If the Royals want to compete for a playoff spot in 2020 and beyond, as they are chirping, then they will need a fully healthy and focused Mondesi next Spring.
If anything, a three-year extension could give Mondesi the confidence and security he needs to focus not on his financial future or where he will be playing in a year or two, but rather, just his play on the field.
Because Royals fans know…when Mondesi is in the zone and focused, there may not be a more exciting shortstop in the American League.