A look ahead to the Royals' 2021 payroll

They may tell you it’s not about the money. But rest assured, it’s always about the money.

As the frozen tundra of free agency begins its slow thaw, the Royals payroll for the 2021 season continues to take shape. Just ahead of the Friday afternoon deadline to agree to terms before exchanging numbers for arbitration, Brad Keller and Adalberto Mondesi both agreed to contracts for the upcoming season. As noted on Monday, Keller signed for $3.35 million and Mondesi came in at $2.525 million. Both numbers were around a million less than the estimates published at Major League Trade Rumors at the start of the offseason.

So now, everyone on the 40-man roster with more than three years of service time has a contract for the upcoming season. Let’s see how that shakes out in terms of overall payroll.

That’s $75.8 million committed to 14 players. With the remainder of the roster currently stocked with players who have fewer than three years of service time, we can expect those players (including starting pitchers such as Brady Singer and Kris Bubic along with second baseman Nicky Lopez and fireballer Josh Staumont for example) to earn close to the 2021 major league minimum salary of $570,500. Although all will undoubtedly make more than the minimum, we can use that as the starting point to estimate the total payroll for the upcoming season.

With those remaining 12 contracts added to the guarantees above, it looks like a total projected Opening Day payroll of around $83 million dollars.

Time for a little perspective. Should the Royals not add another player (which is highly unlikely this far out from Opening Day), this payroll would be the lowest since 2013 when the club opened with a payroll a shade under $82 million.

*Extrapolated from 60-game season.
**Estimated as of January 19, 2021.

The above chart kind of tells you a little something about a championship window, doesn’t it? In 2011, the club shed a couple of large contracts (the Zack Greinke trade and the Gil Meche retirement) and rookies who would ultimately play a major role in the back-to-back AL pennants arrived on the scene. And the payroll steadily grew from there, reaching a peak in 2017, the final year most of those players still received their mail at One Royal Way.

I’ve said this a million times, it was always kind of nuts the Royals just didn’t embrace their rebuild after the 2017 season. It was obvious to everyone what was happening. What needed to happen. And as payroll slipped further down the other side of the peak, it was obvious in both 2019 and even in the abbreviated season of 2020, the rebuild was still happening.

Take a moment to revisit the table above. There are a couple of large contracts due to come off the books after this season. Danny Duffy and the Royals will almost certainly part ways. Salvador Perez will likely remain. And let’s not forget Jorge Soler, who could be setting himself up for a large payday with a successful season. (Especially if the National League finally adopts the designated hitter.) So it’s conceivable that payroll could drop in 2022, depending on how they approach the remainder of this winter and the next.

The current payroll, along with that flexibility looking ahead to 2022 means that the Royals, if they choose, could still shop in the quality department of the free agent store. On Monday I speculated Michael Brantley was a target the Royals could afford. Obviously, there are variables in play with COVID and the uncertainty about revenue streams rebounding anywhere close to 2019 levels, but the Royals appear to be in decent shape no matter what comes next.

They’re obviously out on the top tier free agents (the J.T. Realmutos, George Springers and Trevor Bauers of the market) but that’s ok. They shouldn’t be shopping there in the first place. And there are some players close to that tier like Marcell Ozuna and Marcus Semien who don’t fit—either in organizational philosophy or on the roster as currently constructed. But a Joc Pederson? A Jackie Bradley Jr.? The aforementioned Michael Brantley? The oft-mentioned Jurickson Profar? All left-handed bats (although Profar is a switch-hitter). All affordable and available for the Royals on a multi-year contract.

Don’t stop there. Think big. They could conceivably get that coveted left-handed bat and they could bring back Trevor Rosenthal to shore up the bullpen and keep the payroll under $100 million...all the while keeping their 2022 budget under control. They have room for not one, but two free agent additions.

(Of course, this is all speculation on my part going off past payrolls. Who knows what the actual budget is for 2021. And as I said above, there are underlying factors this year that normally don’t come into play when figuring that budget.)

However, everything the Royals do to improve their roster between now and Opening Day doesn’t happen in a vacuum. They need to balance any moves in the prism of competing in the AL Central. The White Sox have improved. Cleveland and Minnesota have not, but they remain formidable. And with MLB leadership rudderless at the moment, who knows how many teams will qualify for the playoffs this year.

The Royals are in a very strong position, fiscally speaking. If they can find a way to add two more quality players a Wild Card spot isn’t out of the question, no matter how many teams will gain entry. It isn’t assured by any stretch, but at least it could make for an interesting summer. And isn’t that something we’ve been looking for in Kansas City the last five years?

(Alec Lewis from The Athletic also took a look at the Royals’ payroll situation today. Read about it here.)