The Royals kick off their Cactus League campaign today at 2 p.m., which is much anticipated for baseball-starved fans in Kansas City (or for KC sports fans who want to get the taste of the Super Bowl out of their mouths). However, the Royals’ first Spring Training game is surprisingly not the biggest Royals story today, as this news broke in regard to third baseman Hunter Dozier:
News of a possible extension began circulating last night, and for many Royals fans, it doesn’t come as a surprise. This Winter, in a post I wrote in regard to arbitration-eligible players, I did project that Dozier would be a candidate for extension, as Dayton Moore has a tendency to buy out the arbitration years of promising position prospects in the past, with Whit Merrifield and Salvador Perez being the most recent examples. Now that Dozier is off the board, one has to wonder if Moore may have another extension deal or two left to do, with Adalberto Mondesi and Brad Keller being the most likely candidates.
First, let’s take a look at the Dozier deal, and whether it will be a good long-term decision for the Royals. Then, we will take a look at possible Mondesi and Keller extensions, and if those will come this Spring before the start of the regular season (or at all).
At four-years, $25 million, Dozier will command an annual average value of $6.5 million, which is roughly a $3.78 million per year increase from his previous deal, which was only for one year, according to Roster Resource payroll data. Dozier is currently 29 and will be 30 in August, so he’s not exactly a “young” player by any means. However, he’s not too far removed from a near All-Star caliber season in 2019 (he finished second in voting at third base to Alex Bregman), and he did make some gains in plate discipline in 2020. Yes, his power number did regress a little, as his exit velocity on batted balls dropped from 91.1 MPH to 86.4 MPH from 2019 to 2020, respectively, and his ISO also declined from .243 in 2019 to .165 in 2020. That being said, Dozier was affected by COVID last year, and it appears that the lingering effects of the virus affected his overall ability and health, much like Chicago’s Yoan Moncada a year ago, who also saw serious regression at the plate from 2019 to 2020 after catching COVID last Summer.
Of course, even if Dozier is fully healthy, some Royals fans may be asking two questions in regard to this deal: will he be worth it? And what position will he play long-term?
Let’s break down each question individually and dig deeper into Dozier’s profile.
As stated before, Dozier will be eligible for a $10 million dollar club option in 2025, when he will be 33-years old. While it is probably unlikely that the Royals exercise the option, if they do, he will be 34-years-old when he’s a free agent. Most of Dozier’s value is tied up to his hitting, so even though his athletic skills most likely will be declining over the next four-to-five seasons, it is also likely that his power and plate discipline will continue to either improve or at the very least stabilize over that time span. Dozier is a contrast to Mondesi, whose value is tied to speed and defense, which regress sharply as a player ages. Hence, this extension makes sense and should bode well for the Royals as long as Dozier is able to avoid major injury and/or regression at the plate.
I decided to take a look at Dozier’s “value data” via Fangraphs, and I created a table that highlighted his value in different categories from 2016-2020 (minus 2017, as he was injured and did not play in the Majors that season). Any number that is in green text means it is positive. Any number that is in red text means it is negative. And anything in non-bold or colored text means it’s neutral in regard to that category (usually it is under 10 in some categories but still above zero).
Here is that table below:
As one can see, Dozier’s metrics are a little mixed on a value end, but it is kind of expected if one knows what Dozier’s profile is, which is to be a power-hitting corner infielder and/or outfielder. Dozier had negative value in categories such as baserunning, fielding, defense, and positional comparison, but those aren’t necessarily surprising marks. Royals fans know Dozier’s defense and baserunning are sub par, and honestly, neither of those two things are what Royals fans expect from him over the duration of this extension.
However, in regard to batting, offense, league and positional comparison, RAR (runs above average) and WAR (wins above average), Dozier posted sterling marks, and since 2016, he’s generated about $23 million worth of value, according to Fangraphs’ value calculator. Thus, over the past four years, Dozier has been worth an AAV of $5.75 million, and that’s with two sub-par seasons, and a COVID-affected one. Therefore, it is highly likely that Dozier will not only match the value of his initial four-year contract extension, but also surpass it as well, especially since his batting and offensive skills will most likely improve and grow in profile over the duration.
Of course, the next question is this: where will Dozier play in the field over the next four to five seasons?
At this point, I would say that it doesn’t matter where he plays. Honestly, Dozier will most likely be a sub-average player wherever he plays in the field, with the exception of first base, where he will most likely be around average. Dozier is playing third more out of necessity (no other options really exist on the 40-man beyond Kelvin Gutierrez) and it feels like he won’t be a long-term option there either, especially if Bobby Witt, Jr. progresses as expected in the Minors this year.
That being said, Royals fans shouldn’t worry about defense. The bottom line is that Dozier can play multiple positions, and will be fine at any as long as he produces at the plate. He won’t win any Gold Gloves at the hot corner or in the corner outfield spots, but he shouldn’t be a total negative as well, like an Eddie Rosario in Cleveland or Eloy Jimenez in Chicago (it seems like the White Sox are going to move Jimenez to DH this year to minimize his defensive inefficiencies). Furthermore, Dozier also provides some nice insurance for the Royals at the designated hitter position, should Soler leave Kansas City when he becomes a free agent after next season. While Dozier may not have the home run power of Soler, his offensive profile should fit appropriately in designated hitter spot long term.
Now that Dozier is off the board, will Moore work out an extension for Mondesi or Keller next? It is likely, but both will most likely be more difficult in negotiations than Dozier, and for very different reasons as well.
Mondesi does fit the profile of a “Dayton Moore Extension Candidate” and it is possible that the Royals could offer Mondesi a similar deal to the one they gave back to Alcides Escobar back in 2012. Escobar had a mixed history at the MLB level with the Brewers and Royals prior to the extension, and there were some Royals fans who felt that maybe Moore was acting a little too rashly by offering Escobar a deal that bought out two free agency years in addition to his remaining arbitration ones. However, Escobar ended up living up to the deal, and proved to be a key contributor to those successful Royals teams in 2014 and 2015.
That being said, while Escobar was also a top prospect at one point in time (he used to be a top prospect in the Brewers system), he never possessed the power and base running upside of Mondesi, which could make the negotiations with the Dominican-born Mondesi a little more challenging for the Royals front office (since Mondesi offers more upside than Escobar). However, Mondesi has been remarkably inconsistent so far in his carer, and while some are projecting Mondesi to break out in 2021, there are also quite a number of doubters who believe that Mondesi is too flawed a player to ever be dependable at the MLB level:
While Mondesi’s inconsistency in the past will make a possible extension difficult this Spring, Keller’s alarmingly good “consistency” will make his possible extension far from easy as well. Keller has always been a “performance over metrics” guy in the sense that he has been productive even though his advanced numbers (especially walk and K rates) suggest that he is overly lucky and is due for regression. This is difficult for the Royals front office because extensions are often made based on comparable player precedents, and in Keller’s case, there just aren’t a whole lot of accurate comps out there for him, as Inside the Crown’s David Lesky pointed out this week:
Keller is currently slated to make $3.35 million this year, and he will have two years left in arbitration after 2021. And thus, it would make sense for the Royals to buy out at least the next couple of years, for another good season in 2021 could perhaps price the Royals out in the future. The value out there for quality starting pitching, if this off-season has showed us anything, is only going up, as evidenced by Roster Resource’s free agent tracker. Therefore, if the Royals don’t act now, they may lose out on that opportunity to keep Keller in the Royals rotation long term.
That being said, the Royals may not have incentive to keep Keller for the long haul considering how much depth the Royals have in their system when it comes to starting pitching. Yes, Royals fans know about Singer, Bubic, Lynch, Kowar, and Lacy. However, the Royals also have Hernandez and Bolanos, who are on the 40-man roster, as well as Bowlan, Cox, Heasley, and Marsh, who are at Spring Training and all could become valuable assets with the return of the Minor League season in 2021. And thus, Moore and the Royals have the luxury of playing hard ball with Keller in a way they perhaps couldn’t with Dozier and maybe Mondesi in the future. Yes, it would be sad to lose Keller, but the Royals have the system depth to replace him, and it could be tempting for the Royals to perhaps trade him as well at some point this season, especially if a few pitching prospects in the Royals system show that they are ready for the Majors sooner rather than later.
It would be a shame for the Royals to lose Keller, especially after they took a chance on him by acquiring him (via trade) in the Rule 5 Draft.
But baseball is a business…
And it may be in the Royals’ best business interest to perhaps take advantage of Keller’s value while it’s still incredibly high.
(Photo Credit: Rhona Wise/MLB Photos via Getty Images)