His name makes him sound like a member of socialite royalty who summers at his family’s beach house in the Hamptons, but Whit Merrifield is actually a late-blooming breakout star for the Kansas City Royals. A product of the Carolinas, Merrifield grew up in North before attending college in South. KC selected him in the 9th round (269 overall) of the 2010 draft and he toiled for nearly seven seasons in the minors before being called up.
All he’s done in 1,669 plate appearances since is slash .293/.342/.437 with a mere 16.4 percent strikeout rate and a WAR total that has taken big leaps forward each season. Merrifield has got speed to burn, swiping 79 bases while being caught only 18 times over the last two seasons. He’s also got defensive versatility for days, logging at least 46 innings at each of five positions in that time.
Primarily a second baseman, Merrifield can slide to first or handle all three outfield spots with ease. He’s also a top-of-the-order hitter who has logged a vast majority of his plate appearances in the leadoff spot. Put it all together and you can see why so many Cubs fans are stanning for a trade that would bring him to Chicago. I mean, he’s basically a younger, faster Ben Zobrist.
Except he’s not that much younger. Even though he doesn’t have much MLB experience and isn’t even arbitration-eligible until 2020, Merrifield will turn 30 in January. That puts him in sort of a weird limbo when it comes to actual production relative to his incredibly low salary, advanced age, and four remaining years of club control.
Oh, there’s also the fact that only the Orioles (47-115) stood between the Royals (58-104) and the worst record in baseball. Given all they’ll need to accomplish just to climb out of the cellar in their own division, it stands to reason that the return they could get for Merrifield right now is more worthwhile than what he brings to the the table. I mean, they lost over 100 games with him as a 5+ WAR player so it’s not like it can get much worse.
Except that maybe it can, which is why the Kansas City Star’s Sam Mellinger is reporting that Royals GM Dayton Moore is unlikely to trade Merrifield. Citing “a commitment to slow cook the next championship core,” Mellinger notes several reasons behind the reluctance to make a move.
Perhaps the biggest of these is financial, especially after KC slogged through a season that saw the largest one-year attendance drop in team history. Moore has committed to building from here, not rebuilding, so moving Merrifield would go back on that strategy and could cost the Royals even more with fans in both attendance and patience.
A crop of talented prospects is expected to be ready to carry the team into a new period of competitiveness in two years or so, but the Royals don’t yet know exactly how that will shake out. So trading Merrifield for more prospects could result in redundancies that don’t actually help them. And he can’t bring back enough MLB-ready talent to suddenly make the Royals relevant, nor would any of those players have much more club control for when things do turn around.
Now, it’s possible Moore is simply chilling at the back bar and putting out the vibe that he’s playing hard to get, hoping other teams will come calling with bigger offers. And maybe someone just blows him away. But whether that’s the case or this is legit and the Royals really believe they’ll be good again in a couple years, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Merrifield to the Cubs makes sense.
Unless Theo Epstein moves one or more players from the current 25-man roster and determines that what little remains near the top of the farm system is expendable, it won’t work. Merrifield’s value comes from his ability to make contact and get on base atop the order and then to turn walks and singles into doubles and triples. He needs to have an everyday role for that to happen, which means displacing other versatile players to make room.
And that’s assuming the Royals would be willing to make a deal in the first place, which is doesn’t sound as though they are. As Epstein said the other day, though, nothing is truly off the table.