Trading Merrifield should be Royals’ top priority

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For the past two seasons, Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield has been the center of nearly all trade rumors involving the club. The fanbase seems hellbent on keeping him, and for good reason; Merrifield led Major League Baseball the past two seasons in hits, was the stolen base champion in 2018, and put together a franchise-record 31-game hitting streak en route to earning his first all-star selection. However, as the Royals set their eyes toward the latter half of a rebuild, it should become abundantly clear that he should not be a part of their plans.

Merrifield made his Major League debut in May 2016, but was rather old for a rookie, busting into the league at the age of 27, when most players are starting to enter their prime; superstars Peter Alonso (53 home runs, 5.0 wins above replacement), Juan Soto (.949 OPS, 34 home runs), and even Jorge Soler (.922 OPS, 48 home runs) posted their career-best seasons while they were younger than Merrifield was at the time of his debut. The utility player will turn 31 years old on January 24 and by the time his current contract expires, he will nearly be 34 (35 if his team option is exercised). This is the age where many players start to decline progressively, or in the case of Alex Gordon, sharply.

By the time the Royals’ rebuild is complete and the team is once again playoff-ready, he will most likely be closer to 40 than 30, and with prospects such as Bobby Witt set to take over at second base if Nicky Lopez (who forced him to the outfield) doesn’t work out, or Nick Heath, who potentially could be in the starting outfield discussion, Merrifield may simply be the odd man out in a logjam of prospects climbing their way up the ranks of the Royals’ farm system. The acquisition of Maikel Franco doesn’t make things any better, as Merrifield (who has played 31 innings at third base in his career) wouldn’t be able to shift there or to right field, where Hunter Dozier will now start. Both of their bats are too significant to play on a platoon basis (all three are right-handed anyway), and with Soler locked into the designated hitter spot, it would seem that there is no place for Merrifield to play.

Merrifield’s advanced statistics are not encouraging either. Though he consistently hits the ball to all fields, his exit velocity of 86.4 mph ranked him in only the 15th percentile among qualified Major League hitters according to Statcast. His expected statistics, which take into account exit velocity, pitch type and location, and ballpark factors, among other things, had him placed firmly in the middle of the pack, as his expected weighted on base average (xwOBA) sat him at a mediocre 44th percentile. His hard-hit percentage also had him in the 12th percentile, which is not an encouraging statistic for an everyday leadoff hitter, as he had a barrel rate of 4.3%, far below the Major League average of 6.3%.

But enough about the negatives; Merrifield has a plethora of positive attributes that could entice another team to potentially give a top-ranked prospect or two. For starters, he is one of the true utility men in the game, accumulating over 300 innings played at second base, right field and center field, and also having Major League time in left field, first base and third base. Versatility is one of the most sought-after aspects in a player His natural position all through the minor leagues was at second base, so he ideally would be shipped off to a team with a gaping hole there with no immediate replacement. The Chicago Cubs, who have been linked to Merrifield as recently as this offseason, are an example, as their depth chart has Nico Hoerner as their starting second baseman. Hoerner has been perfectly average throughout his admittedly short career, putting up a .282 batting average and a subpar .741 OPS, and is projected to do about the same in 2020. A team vying for a playoff spot next year, the Cubs have no clear-cut option at second base, as Addison Russell is a free agent and not likely to return, as he had been held out for a half season due to a domestic violence suspension.

Merrifield’s contract is also a huge upside, as he is signed to an extremely team-friendly four-year, $16.25 million contract through the 2022 season, with a $10.5 million team option for 2023. If he does continue to put up his All-Star numbers, his contract would be a huge bargaining chip for teams with large financial obligations for the next few seasons, such as the Anaheim Angels. Having signed Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon to $426.5 million and $245 million contracts, respectively, they will not be able to sign another huge free agent for a while if they want to avoid luxury tax penalties. Their current second baseman, Tommy La Stella, was just as valuable a hitter as Merrifield (albeit in less than half the at-bats), so they wouldn’t need him to play there. However, they do have somewhat of a question in right field, as former Royal Brian Goodwin projects to be the everyday right fielder with Justin Upton returning to the lineup. Goodwin started his 2019 campaign as one of the best hitters in the league, but soon fizzled out, hitting just .245 with a .745 OPS after the end of April. Merrifield has a considerable amount of time in right field, with it being his second-most tenured position behind second base. For a team with its eyes set on the postseason, the Angels would likely be willing to overpay a bit for Merrifield’s services. Though they likely wouldn’t be willing to part with No. 1 prospect Jo Adell (who very well may end up as their starting right fielder on Opening Day), general manager Dayton Moore could be able to engineer a trade for under-the-radar players as he has done in the past.

However, the most major factor in Merrifield still being in Kansas City is Moore himself. It has been reported time and time again that no teams are willing to meet his lofty demands for a trade; he needs to understand that though any trade that would involve Merrifield being traded away would be overwhelmingly unpopular with a Royals fanbase that seems to put him on the same pedestal as Christian Yelich and Jose Altuve, it is a move that is absolutely pivotal to be a contending team again. Sure, prospects don’t always turn out. The Royals have found that out the hard way over the years (see Bubba Starling and Kyle Zimmer). But relying on continued production into the mid-2020s from a player already the wrong side of 30 is quite honestly a foolish way of thinking, and if Moore didn’t learn from his mistake of depending on Gordon to be productive, then it very well could be said that he doesn’t deserve to win another championship.

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Author: Alex Burbidge

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