On an afternoon last August, inside a stairwell at Detroit’s Comerica Park, Danny Duffy began talking about Kansas City, the adopted hometown that had witnessed his transformation.
He spoke, the emotion welling up, and when he was done, he told a reporter that he would keep going all day if nobody stopped him.
Duffy loved the city, he said. He loved the people. He loved the vibe. He loved the Royals, the baseball organization that had drafted him, a skinny left-handed pitcher from Lompoc, Calif., and gave him his baseball career.
He also loved general manager Dayton Moore, and Duffy appreciated the patience the organization had when he momentarily walked away from baseball in 2010. Now 27 years old, in the midst of the best summer of his career, Duffy finished his long soliloquy about his town and his team and confided the following.
“I’m not trying to pull out the violin, but I want to be here,” he said. “They’ve been really good to me, good to my family. And it would just be absolutely devastating if I ever had to leave. In a perfect world, I would be here forever.”
Five months later, on a chilly Monday morning in Kansas City, Duffy got what he wanted, signing a five-year, $65 million contract extension that will keep him a member of the Royals through 2021.
The deal was expected after Duffy spent much of 2016 expressing his desire to stay in Kansas City for the long term. But as the Royals finish up a pivotal winter and seek a return to the postseason after a disappointing 2016 campaign, the signing of Duffy signals a clear offseason victory.
The contract delivers a momentary respite from a coming free-agent exodus, increases hope that the Royals can extend their window to contend, and offers the following calculus: Danny Duffy wanted to be in Kansas City; the Royals stand to benefit.
“It’s very rare for a player to reach this kind of long-term deal when a player is in the final year (before free agency),” Moore said Monday in a phone interview. “Usually if they wait this long, they just wait until free agency and take their chances there.”
The Royals understood this reality. But Duffy is not one to take a conventional approach. By signing a five-year contract, he erased his final season of arbitration and ensured that he will not become a free agent after 2017, when he would have been open to the highest bidder.
The Royals, meanwhile, locked up a potential front-line starter at a cost-efficient rate, shaving costs in 2017 in the process. Duffy will make $5 million this season; $14 million in 2018; $15.25 million in 2019 and 2020 and $15.5 million in 2021, according to source familiar with the deal.
With Duffy set to receive a raise through arbitration — his 2017 salary would have fallen somewhere between $7.25 million and $8 million — the Royals also received financial relief in the present.
“We’re excited we were able to get a deal done,” Moore said. “We’re glad that Danny likes it here in Kansas City. And we certainly like him. And we’re proud that he’ll be a part of our organization and our city for the next five years.”
Moore said the Royals and Duffy began negotiations before the winter meetings in early December, with assistant general manager Jin Wong serving as the point man. The talks heated up over the last week as both sides exchanged salary numbers in the arbitration process. On Thursday, Moore called Duffy to make sure both sides were on the same page. By then, a deal appeared imminent.
“We expressed that we wanted Danny here long-term,” Moore said. “He expressed the same sentiment. We just worked toward it.”
By signing now, Duffy will forgo an opportunity to land a lavish free-agent contract next winter. In the 2018 free-agent class, Duffy would have been positioned as the third-best starting pitcher on the market behind Texas’ Yu Darvish and the Chicago Cubs’ Jake Arrieta. If Duffy replicated his 2016 season — 3.51 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 179 2/3 innings — he could have attracted a contract north of $100 million.
But Duffy never seemed all that interested in maximizing his value. He simply wanted a fair deal that would serve his interests, he said, a deal that would keep him in Kansas City.
As a child, he had grown up in Lompoc, a blue-collar town that sits three hours up the coast from Los Angeles. His father, Dan, was an investigator with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. His mother, Deanna, is a former California Highway Patrol officer. On Monday, Duffy guaranteed his family generational wealth.
“I want to be in Royal blue,” he said last summer. “That’s really all I’m about.”
If the contract offers risk for the Royals, it stems from the health history of Duffy, who underwent Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in May 2012, rehabbed for a year, and returned to the big leagues in August 2013. In six big-league seasons, Duffy has never thrown more than the 179 2/3 innings he tossed last season. He began 2016 in the bullpen after posting a 4.35 ERA as a starter in 2015.
Yet he appeared to find himself in 2016, adding a devastating slider to his arsenal and posting a career high in strikeouts and wins above replacement (4.2). He completed a physical on Monday morning. The Royals, Moore said, are fully comfortable with Duffy’s medical file.
“Five years is a long time, and there is risk there with pitchers,” Moore said. “We all know that. With long-term contracts with pitchers, there’s a risk-reward.”
For the moment, it appears the reward could far exceed the risk. Moore noted that Duffy will pitch the entire 2017 season at 28 years old. He would have reached free agency at the attractive age of 29. The Royals lack the financial means to battle for the best starting pitchers on the open market. Yet, they do have the resources to retain a starting pitcher who yearned to stay in Kansas City. In this way, the Royals’ investment in relationships and culture paid dividends.
Nearly seven years ago, Duffy, a former third-round pick and top prospect, left baseball during spring training. For a franchise mired in decades of losing, the news was a gut punch. But the Royals supported Duffy through the process, letting him spend a few months away from the game before he returned to the organization. Duffy has rarely spoken publicly about his sabbatical. But the experience turned him into a staunch loyalist, a player who rarely hides his admiration for Moore.
“Dayton Moore is one of a kind,” Duffy said. “I’m extremely fortunate to have him running the ship since I’ve been here. Lord knows I’ve tested him a lot with my performance and where my mind used to be. I just appreciate him.”
In the years that followed, Duffy wove himself into the fabric of the franchise. He experienced a breakout in 2014. He donned a champagne-soaked bear suit during the club’s run to a World Series championship in 2015. He brought his own vocabulary to Kauffman Stadium. (“Gnar” for interviews; “Bury me a Royal” for social media posts). By late 2016, he knew he wanted to stay for as long as possible.
“It would be pretty sick,” Duffy said.
The Royals, of course, still have a long list of pending free agents after 2017, including first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar.
But with Duffy in the fold, the Royals now have four potential starting pitchers signed to long-term contracts. Duffy is under contract through 2021, while Yordano Ventura is under club control through the same season, with team options in 2020 and 2021. The recently acquired Nathan Karns is under club control through 2020, while right-hander Ian Kennedy will be under contract through 2020 if he declines a one-time opt-out following the 2017 season.
“You just keep going,” Moore said. “You’re not done for the next five years with pitching.”