A look ahead to the Royals 2022 payroll

The MLB Trade Rumors arbitration estimates are out for 2022. Let's all update our spreadsheets! We will find the Royals are in a strong position going forward.

When the club you write about is on the postseason sidelines, the key moment to kick off the offseason is MLB Trade Rumors arbitration estimates. It’s the perfect start to the winter and prime opportunity for roster nerds such as myself (and hopefully you!) to dust off the spreadsheets to take a stab at exactly how much money the Royals have to spend in preparation for the next season.

Well, the numbers were released on Monday, so let’s party.

Let’s start with what we know. That’s always a good place to begin. The Royals have six players under contract for the 2022 season. The numbers below are from Cot’s Contracts, hosted by Baseball Prospectus.

The 2022 season is the first year of Salvador Perez’s four-year, $82 million contract. Nice timing, huh? It’s the largest contract in franchise history for the player who has been described in this digital newsletter as “franchise icon” as well as the “the heart and soul” of the Royals. It’s a huge roll of the dice to award a catcher at this stage of his career that kind of dough, but after watching Perez play 161 games in 2021 and his production actually improve over the season’s second half, it’s a little less troublesome. At least the first part of that contract.

Speaking of gambles, the Carlos Santana deal signed last winter doesn’t look so hot today. His wRC+ of 83 was the worst among all qualified first basemen. His -0.3 fWAR was second-worst, ahead of only Miguel Cabrera who finished at -0.7 fWAR. Santana was brought in as a two-year placeholder, but that first year was…rough. Especially concerning following a dreadful 2019. And now with Nick Pratto and others steamrolling the minors last summer, it’s difficult to see where Santana fits.

You need some veteran presence—the Royals certainly believe in it—and that’s why Mike Minor was brought in, to anchor a rotation defined by youth. He ended his season in mid-September due to shoulder impingement syndrome with a 2.3 fWAR in 28 starts. He’s not a front-line starter by any stretch, but his role is to provide innings and a certain quality in the back of the rotation. Think Jason Vargas who made $8 million a year to perform a similar service a few years ago. He’s not overpaid for what he brings.

This may be a move the Royals regret, but Hunter Dozier’s contract extension started last year at $2.25 million. The 2022 season would be the second time he would’ve been eligible for arbitration, so that gives you an idea of where they came up with that amount ($4.75 million) for the upcoming year when negotiating the extension. The defense was incredibly suspect last year, and can he hit enough to supplant Santana at first? His closing kick in September was promising, but we’ve seen that before.

Meanwhile, Whit Merrifield’s extension was a bit front-loaded in anticipation of a bit of labor unrest forthcoming. Whether or not that happens, remains to be seen, but that at least explains why his salary will drop by $4 million from what he made in 2021. There is an option on his 2023 season at $6.5 million. Cot’s isn’t clear on who holds the option (player or team) but if it’s a club option, it’s safe to say it will be picked up.

Finally, there’s Michael A. Taylor, who signed his contract extension the last week of the 2021 season. He will earn a base salary of $4.5 million this year and next to patrol center field at The K. This is the Royals locking down a plus-defender for a position where no one was coming through the pipeline.

Add it all together and the Royals have committed $50.5 million to those six players for the 2022 season. That’s a good start.

Now, let’s turn our attention to those arbitration estimates from MLB Trade Rumors. The Royals have nine players eligible for arbitration. There are myriad ways the Royals can go with the names on this list. They can sign a player to a one-year deal, they can extend any of these players or they can simply choose not to tender them a contract, which would make them free agent. The deadline to tender a contract is December 2.

Here are the Royals’ eligible players:

Andrew Benintendi signed a two-year contract extension while in Boston, buying out his first two trips through arbitration. Last year, Benny cashed $6.6 million, with the Sox picking up $2.8 million of that tab. He’s set to make quite a bit more in his final year of arbitration.

His 2021 season was interesting, in that there were clear markers where you could divvy up his performance. Prior to his injury, Benny hit .283/.340/.429 with six doubles and eight home runs. It was a performance good for a 109 wRC+. Honestly, I was a bit surprised at his lack of doubles power in the early going, but his bat at times looked slow; he had difficulty getting around on some pitches he should have been cranking. The fact he was nine percent better than the league average hitter was a plus.

Immediately following his return from that cracked rib, Benintendi slumped. Big time. From July 4 to September 5, he hit .211/.238/.361 with an abysmal 56 wRC+. It was a stretch where we started to hear rumblings that Benny could become a non-tender candidate.

That talk was shelved when he started to ignite in September. Over his final 107 plate appearances, Benny hit a robust .383/.439/.628 with a 186 wRC+. Total it all up and while it wasn’t the smoothest season, he did hit .276/.324/.442, good for a 106 wRC+. And he did that by playing quality defense, finishing tied for the AL lead in Defensive Runs Saved with a +7 mark.

He’s now a candidate for a contract extension. The Royals have the payroll flexibility and with Minor and Santana coming off the books after 2022, it’s easy to see Benintendi taking a little less than his arbitration estimate for the upcoming season in exchange for a little more in the next year or two.

In an interesting position, Brad Keller is entering his second year of arbitration eligibility. The former Rule 5 pick is coming off his least productive season as a big leaguer with a 4.3 BB/9 and 1.2 HR/9, both representing the worst marks of his career. After three years of keeping the ball on the ground, he started allowing fly balls and quite a few of them carried just a little too far. He finished the season on the shelf for the second time in the last two full seasons.

It’s not that the Royals are debating whether or not to bring him back. He’s going to return. The BABIP and strand rate all point to an improvement from what we saw in 2021, and he did add to his strikeout rate at 8.1 K/9. It’s just that with the young pitchers all making progress behind him, Keller, who at one time was an extension candidate, no longer carries that possibility.

No one cost himself more money in 2021 than Adalberto Mondesi. In what should’ve been a breakout season for the 25-year-old, it instead was an endless nightmare of injury. He made $2.525 million in ’21 and is now slated to collect just a modest raise to $3.2 million. Honestly, that number feels high. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s brought back at less than $3 million. But it’s not like there’s a huge gap in those two numbers.

It’s not easy to build a bullpen, but every successful relief corps has one or two unheralded gems. I’ll drop Scott Barlow into that category. Plucked from the Dodgers as a minor league free agent, the Royals signed him to a split contract before he ever pitched an inning in the majors. He’s emerged as a bullpen mainstay, pumping 11 K/9 in a late-inning role. This is why teams like the Royals should rarely spend the big bucks on the alleged elite relievers. Do the legwork and you can turn up pitchers who can do the job for a lot less cash.

With just under three years of MLB service time, Nicky Lopez qualifies for arbitration for the first time as a super-two. After what he did last year, $2 million is still a bargain. Arbitration is evolving, but still places a premium on the old-school stats. Lopez’s .300 batting average and stolen bases (along with probably being a Gold Glove finalist again) will absolutely play. As a first-year eligible, there’s not a lot of room above that $2 million estimate, but it’s not difficult to see him cash in for a bit more, should he and his representation hold firm and let the process play out.

I had high hopes for Jakob Junis in 2021. With the cutter added to his repertoire, he seemed poised to take a step forward. Instead, he transferred to the bullpen, was exiled to Omaha, injured, and returned for one final start before he was injured again, ending his season. The Royals like to keep their pitchers around (you can never have too much pitching), but it’s not a stretch to see them non-tender Junis. Should that happen, they could then bring him back on a split contract at less expense.

Non-tendered last year by Baltimore, Hanser Alberto found a role in Kansas City. He made $1.65 million in 2021 and for what he contributed, a $500k bump may be just a little too much. He could find himself on the non-tender list once again.

Do the Royals love Ryan O’Hearn or what? He really should be a non-tender candidate, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Royals sign him for close to that number and then either have him spend the bulk of his season in the minors, or they just outright release him early in the year.

As far as backups to Perez go, Cam Gallagher is perfectly fine. Anything under $1 million is an easy call, I think. It’s insurance for MJ Melendez to open the season.

So for the players already under contract and if all those arbitration-eligible are tendered contracts and settle at the estimated figures from MLB Trade Rumors, the Royals will have committed around $78.8 million for 15 players. The remaining 11 players who will fill out the big league roster will earn around the major league minimum. That rate for 2021 was $570,500 and has been increasing by about $10,000 over the last several years. So it’s safe to assume it will land close to $580,000 in 2022. Some players will make a little more, but not much. Such is the economics of the game. If we estimate $590,000 for the remaining 11 players to fill out the roster, that would total $6.49 million.

(The major league minimum is for players with less than three years of service who don’t qualify for super-two status. On the 2022 Royals, that would be the bulk of their rotation, most of their bullpen, along with any prospects such as Bobby Witt Jr. )

Add it all up and that brings the total payroll around $85 million. That’s without any other moves to add salaries such as free agent signings or trades. For perspective, the Royals’ Opening Day payroll was above $96 million in 2019 and was reported by Cot’s as just shy of $89 million to open 2021. While it looks like the Royals are just about $10 million under that number currently, there is plenty of room for the club to maneuver. Still, I’m anticipating a quiet offseason on the transaction front. With the pitching pipeline producing and the hitting prospects on the verge of breaking with the club, there aren’t a ton of obvious holes in the lineup or the rotation.

But if the opportunity arises to upgrade a position or two, Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo have the wiggle room to add some payroll. Maybe a couple of very low-level free agents in the Ervin Santana/Wade Davis mold for the bullpen. Or another bat for the bench.

The underlying takeaway is the Royals are in a very good position, fiscally speaking. With prospects landing in the majors and only a couple of long-term contracts, they have the wiggle room to add key players to compliment what they hope is the core they’ve already assembled. While they may not make any major moves this winter, the ability is there once they address their most pressing needs. That’s a good place to be as the club emerges from this latest rebuild.

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