Whit Merrifield’s extension with the Royals does both sides a huge favor.
Whit Merrifield’s career trajectory has been different than most.
A ninth-round selection in the 2010 MLB Draft, Merrifield has logged more time in the minor leagues than most players. Two years after he was drafted, he was made available in the Rule 5 Draft. There were no takers.
However, Whit Merrifield surprised the baseball world since making his debut at age 27. He has played above-average defense, sported an above-average bat, and he has managed to stay on the field healthy. Despite recording 1,700 plate appearances in Double-A and Triple-A combined, Merrifield managed to escape minor league purgatory. Since the start of the 2017 season until now, Merrifield has compiled a 5.3 WAR, which ranks seventh among all second basemen during that time. In 2018, Merrifield compiled a .304/.367/.438 line, something that few would have seen as realistic a few years ago.
Merrifield is one of baseball’s feel good stories and an organization’s ideal player. He is the type of player that appears, on the surface, to be a good fit with any club rebuilding or not. While second base is his primary position, he has showcased defensive versatility by playing first base, third base, and any of the outfield positions. The combination of Merrifield’s defensive flexibility along with his steady bat and ability to create runs with his legs makes him the most valuable player on the Royals right now.
With all due respect to World Series champion Salvador Perez and the ascending Alberto Mondesi (who accumulated 14 home runs, 52 runs batted in, and a 114 wRC+ in half a season), Merrifield has emerged as the Royals’ most consistent player as well as the best.
“Whit made the best of his opportunity,” Royals manager Ned Yost said, according to The Kansas City Star. “Now he’s a fixture.”
And the Royals treated him as such recently.
Merrifield was considered a likely trade candidate last year. The argument was that he was still a player with multiple years of club control and performed well above his contractual obligations. He would have been a great fit for a contending team last year such as the Milwaukee Brewers (who instead traded for Jonathan Schoop, who disappointed and recently signed a one-year, prove-it deal with the Twins). However, the Royals elected to hang onto him and instead awarded him (to the surprise of several analysts) with a four-year extension.
Considering how Merrifield has played over the past two years, his initial contract extension felt like a slight. Merrifield is coming off a year in which he batted over .300 and had a 120 wRC+, which was easily above-average for second basemen:
He also led the major leagues in hits (192) and stolen bases (45) in 2018. With his on-field performance being what it was, the four-year extension worth $16.25 million that Merrifield signed was a favorable, team-friendly deal for the Royals.
The crazy thing is that the Royals did not even have to give him that extension to retain his services.
Due to his arrival in the major leagues at 27, Merrifield would not have been eligible for free agency until the conclusion of the 2022 season by which time he’ll be three years older and approaching his mid-30’s. Baseball players in their mid-30’s do not tend to fare well when it comes to free agency.
So the Royals did Merrifield a favor: they offered him a contract extension that replaced his arbitration years. Merrifield gets to maximize his earnings while he has value on the baseball field and the Royals hang on to a under-the-radar star at an inexpensive price. For a club that was 58-104 in 2018 and faces a long and arduous rebuild, it was perplexing to see the Royals extend their 30-year-old veteran, but it is a move that would surely satisfy Royals fans who are at least hoping to see some improvement from the club this year.
Merrifield’s extension is also peculiar and unexpected due to the Royal’s highly-touted prospect Nicky Lopez. Lopez, 22, was a fifth-round pick out of Creighton in 2016. He is the Royals 11th-best prospect, who is quickly ascending in the rankings. Currently with the Burlington Royals, Lopez is rising through the system quickly. In just his second season as a professional, Lopez was promoted to Class A Advanced Wilmington, then to Double-A Northwest Arkansas in ‘17.
“Defense is what has gotten him there this fast,” Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said, according to MLB.com. “Offensively, he does a really good job with his at-bats. He has an advanced, mature approach to hitting. He rarely swings early in counts, but when he does go early, he gets a good pitch. His pitch selection is good. He handles the fastball well. He can situational-hit.”
Lopez was expected to be the Royals next second baseman and still could be. Although Merrifield’s natural position is second base, he has displayed a willingness to play all around the diamond. There is a chance that the Royals give up on Hunter Dozier (who has really not showed much promise, batting .209/.269/.331 during the first half of the 2018 season and .247/.287/.453 in the second half of the season) and entrench Merrifield at the hot corner when Lopez is ready for the majors. J.J. Picollo indirectly noted Lopez’s similarities to Merrifield’s game when discussing one of the Royals’ top prospects.
“He understands what his strengths are,” Picollo said of Lopez, according to MLB.com. “He’s been like that since we drafted him. He can run and he’s got some pop. But I don’t think [power] is ever going to be a big part of his game. He’s going to be an on-base guy.”
Like Lopez, getting on base is key to Merrifield’s offensive value because he has not shown thus far that he will be a guy that could be counted on to whack home runs regularly and consistently. What Merrifield does bring is speed. Statcast measured the MLB players’ run speed on competitive plays (hence defined here as plays when a player goes from first to home on an extra-base hit or when they go home to first on “weakly” hit balls). Compared to his Royals’ infield teammates (Ryan O’Hearn or Adalberto Mondesi did not qualify for this statistic), Merrifield is the fastest.
Over the course of his three years with the Royals, Merrifield had always been a threat to steal. What makes him dangerous on the basepaths and the reason why he led the league in steals is his ability to get good jumps. Consider the video below:
Although this happened in 2016, it showcases what Merrifield did in 2018. He is very good at reading the pitcher and booking for second at the right moment. As soon as the pitcher gets into his motion, Merrifield takes off.
The Royals will not win many games in 2019. Besides bringing in Brad Boxberger and Billy Hamilton, the Royals have not made many moves in free agency. The rebuild will continue, and the losses will pile up. However, at least the Royals know that there is one position in the diamond that they do not have to worry about for the next four years.
(All statistics and information originated from FanGraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, or ESPN.com, unless otherwise noted.)
Edited by Brian Kang.
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