The Braves lost 7-6 in the opening round of the NLDS to the Phillies on Thursday, but they made a huge move on Monday as they extended budding young ace Spencer Strider to a seven-year, $92 million extension.
The Strider deal was just a long line of “early extension” deals done by Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos over the past two seasons.
The Braves are certainly the “standard” when it comes to inking young stars to long-term deals early in their service time.
However, they are not the only team to incorporate this practice. The Rays signed Wander Franco to a 12-year extension last November. The Padres signed Fernando Tatis, Jr. to a 14-year extension prior to Spring Training in 2021.
On one end, signing a young star is a way for a club to keep their talent in the organization for a valuable amount of time (while also skipping the arbitration process which can be a grind for players and front offices). That being said, such a strategy can be a risk, as the Padres are figuring out with Tatis, who didn’t play at all in 2022 due to injury and PED suspension.
The Royals’ current payroll is around $88 million, according to Roster Resource data. They are a small market team, so to be over that $100 million threshold by a considerable margin may be unrealistic, which should eliminate many “high-priced” free agent options coming to Kansas City this offseason.
If GM JJ Picollo though can sign some young talent to long-term deals, not only could he buy out the arbitration years of key young talent in the Royals organization, but perhaps some free agent season of those players as well. Having those young players solidified on the roster without the worry of them leaving too soon should set the Royals up for success in the long term, which is what Royals fans are craving after an uneven tenure under previous GM Dayton Moore.
Hence, let’s take a look at three candidates in the Royals system who could be signed to an extension this offseason.
For this piece, I ranked them according to their combination of signability as well as priority, especially when looking at the state of the Royals system (i.e. how much depth is there at their positions).
No. 1: Brady Singer, SP
The Royals starting pitching was a mess this season, which is evidenced by the Royals ranking 27th in ERA and 28th this season in WHIP as a starting staff.
Brady Singer on the other hand was a bright spot, as he not only posted a 3.11 ERA in 24 starts, but he also generated a 2.9 fWAR in 147.2 IP for the Royals in 2022.
To give a glimpse of how Singer stood out in comparison to his Royals starter brethren, let’s take a look at how he compared to other Royals starting pitchers this year who pitched 10 or more innings, via Fangraphs.
The only other pitcher who sort of compared was Zack Greinke, who posted a 3.68 ERA and 1.9 fWAR in 137 IP in his return to Kansas City. While he is an interesting candidate to bring back, especially considering his veteran status, he ranked last of Royals starting pitchers in the sample above in K/9 as well as average fastball velocity. Those aren’t promising signs for 2023, especially since he will be 39 years old in 2023.
The Royals will need to solidify their rotation with so many young pitchers failing to make considerable gains this season at both the Major League (Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, and Jon Heasley) and Minor League (Jackson Kowar, Asa Lacy, and Alec Marsh) levels. Singer may not necessarily be a long-term “ace” in Kansas City, but at the very least, he proved this year he could be a valuable part of an MLB rotation for years to come, especially if he can continue to build on his hot finish to the 2022 season.
In addition, Singer’s 2022 doesn’t look that much worse than Strider.
Strider was certainly more valuable (by about 2.0 fWAR), and the K/9 numbers favor the Atlanta pitcher. But, when putting their metrics side-by-side, it’s certainly plausible to think that Singer could merit a similar deal to Strider (and be worth it), even if it may be less money per year on an AAV (average annual value) end or a couple fewer years (5-6 perhaps).
It’s not out of the question for Royals fans to think that Singer, with a little more batted ball luck and fewer homers could have a very comparable season to Strider in 2023, especially since Strider only had an xFIP one run higher than Singer last year.
No. 2: Bobby Witt, Jr., SS
It’s likely that the AL Rookie of the Year award will go to Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez, but that shouldn’t downplay the year that Bobby Witt, Jr. had in 2022.
The second overall pick in 2019, Witt slashed .254/.294/.428 with a 99 wRC+ and 2.3 fWAR over 150 games and 632 plate appearances. In terms of counting stats, Witt hit 20 home runs, stole 30 bases, scored 82 runs, and drove in 80 RBI, all as a Royals rookie.
For the most part, Witt’s defense held him back in 2022, as he was 4.3 runs below average, according to Fangraphs’ Def metric. But, he looked much better down the stretch at shortstop in September/October (where he primarily played), which gives Royals fans hope that he can produce much more palatable defensive metrics in 2023.
It’s also interesting to note that Franco and Witt’s metrics compared favorably to one another, and that was with Franco having much better defensive value.
Granted, Franco generated the same fWAR in nearly half the number of games as Witt, which isn’t a good sign fo Witt’s efficiency. However, Witt dwarfed Franco in power and speed stats, despite having less MLB experience going into 2022 than the Tampa Bay infielder.
The Royals’ lack of pitching puts Singer slightly above Witt in terms of “extension priority” this offseason in my opinion.
That being said, it seems like Picollo and the Royals are already in the early stages of discussing an extension, as was mentioned by Picollo in a press conference shortly after he assumed the top role in the organization.
Now, a lot of people are saying that Witt will not sign an extension mostly because Witt comes from an affluent background, unlike players from Latin America, like Franco, who come from more “impoverished” backgrounds and thus “need the money” more.
I understand the sentiment and see why it makes sense, but I also think it can be a lazy and somewhat dangerous train of thought as well (dangerous mostly on the “racist” end).
Tatis for example comes from money (his dad played in the Majors, like Witt) and he signed a 14-year extension. Strider and Austin Riley don’t come from poverty, and yet they signed long-term extensions.
On the other hand, Oneil Cruz for the Pirates, who is from the Dominican Republic, is one of the most dynamic players in baseball and has not signed an extension just yet, even though he could substantially gain from such a move.
What matters more, in this case, is whether or not the team is winning, not necessarily their “economic background.” The Braves are winning. The Rays are winning. The Nationals and Pirates aren’t, which explains why we didn’t see an extension for Juan Soto or Cruz.
Witt is already the face of the Royals franchise, even with Salvy on the roster. After all, Witt wouldn’t be asked to do the pregame Chiefs drum if he didn’t have “Franchise Player” potential.
If they want to have any shot of signing Witt this offseason or next, they need to show that they can not just be competitive soon, but in the long term as well, much like Atlanta and Tampa Bay.
No. 3: Vinnie Pasquantino, 1B/DH
I know some Royals fans may think that MJ Melendez, Michael Massey, or even Nick Pratto may be a higher priority or better value, especially considering their defensive value and/or ability (in fact, I already wrote about Pratto being a good extension candidate).
At the end of the day though, the Royals need to solidify their lineup around Witt, and Pasquantino provides the most stable profile of the Royals’ cadre of young and talented position players.
Case in point?
Last year, Pasquantino tied for third in fWAR (with Michael A. Taylor) of Royals position players with 50 or more plate appearances and led all Royals hitters in wRC+ despite playing in only 72 games.
What makes Pasquantino so valuable is his supreme eye at the plate, as he actually posted a BB rate (11.7 percent) higher than his K rate (11.4 percent) in 298 plate appearances. Of Royals hitters last year, only Carlos Santana walked more than he struck out, and only Andrew Benintendi (0.75) and Melendez (0.50) posted BB/K ratios of 0.50 or higher.
Safe to say, Pasquantion’s combination of power and patience makes him one of the most intriguing cleanup hitters the Royals have had since Billy Butler and Mike Sweeney.
While those comparisons are promising, especially considering Butler and Sweeney were both All-Stars in Kansas City, Royals fans should be thinking greater than just Butler and Sweeney when it comes to a Pasquantino comp.
Pasquantino’s profile mirrors Cincinnati’s Joey Votto, and that comparison becomes more evident when Royals fans look at both their wOBA and BB/K ratio data from their age 24 seasons, which is compiled via Fangraphs.
The big difference between Votto and Pasquantino in their age-24 seasons is that the Cincinnati first baseman hit for more power than Vinnie. Votto posted an ISO of .209 in his age-24 season while Pasquantino’s ISO was 54 points lower. Then again, Votto primarily hit in the more hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark, unlike Pasquantino, who played his home games in the more spacious Kauffman Stadium this year.
Nonetheless, if Pasquantino can be a Votto-esque player in the long term for the Royals?
Well, safe to say, the Royals will have the third or fourth spot in the lineup solidified for a good while, which should incentivize Picollo and the Royals to come up with some kind of extension for Vinnie this offseason.
Pasquantino won’t get much cheaper next offseason, especially if he has another season like 2022, but this time, over a full 162 games at the Major League level.
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