The Winter Meetings begin on Monday in San Diego, and that means the trade rumors will be flying.
One player who may not be among the most likely trade candidates is Royals infielder/outfielder Whit Merrifield. That’s not for lack of interest, but because the Royals seem reluctant to part with him.
“We’ve made an advance decision that Whit needs to be a part of our team, especially for the near future,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said last month on MLB Network’s Hot Stove. “I understand why teams ask about him. It’s their responsibility to inquire about good players. Whit’s a player that can help a team win in multiple ways, with his flexibility, his ability to hit at the top of the lineup, so that’s a player we need as well.
“We’re trying to win baseball games, and yes, we’re at a stage where we may not be there yet, but we’re not going to just concede that we’re rebuilding, or we can’t win. We’re going to try to put the best team we can on the field each and every night to compete in the Major Leagues, and Whit’s a major part of that.”
But GMs have been known to change their minds, and they have a responsibility to improve their teams if presented with an opportunity. As MLB.com’s Royals beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan put it in his Winter Meetings preview, “The Royals will listen to offers on anyone,” even though they would have to be “overwhelmed” to part with Merrifield.
Will someone overwhelm K.C.? The odds may be against it, but there is also plenty of reason to think that someone should.
What does Merrifield bring to the table?
A ninth-round pick out of South Carolina in the 2010 Draft, Merrifield didn’t get a chance in Kansas City until ‘16, after he already had turned 27. But he has made up for lost time and was a first-time All-Star this past season. His repertoire features:
A sweet swing: The best contact falls in the “sweet spot” range between 8-32 degrees of launch angle, which in 2019 produced 79% of extra-base hits across MLB. Of the 225 hitters who put at least 250 balls in play, Mike Trout was the only one to make a higher rate of his contact in that range than Merrifield (42.4%).
Lots of hits: Merrifield doesn’t walk a lot but also strikes out at a relatively modest rate. Combined with his favorable contact and speed, that’s allowed him to rank second in the Majors in plate appearances (2,072) and hits (567) since 2017. His park-adjusted wRC+ in that time is 12% above league average -- the same as Trevor Story, and just ahead of Mike Moustakas.
Quick wheels: Even with a dropoff in his age-30 season, Merrifield’s 28.6 feet per second sprint speed ranked in the 86th percentile of MLB players, and he swiped 20 bags while tying for the MLB lead with 10 triples. Over the two previous years, he ranked fourth in the Majors in steals (79) and 10th in FanGraphs’ baserunning runs (11.9).
A versatile glove: Primarily a second baseman, Merrifield also has spent significant Major League time in the outfield -- at all three positions -- while dabbling at first and third base. He has been stellar at second (25 career Defensive Runs Saved), and hardly a liability in the outfield (3 DRS, 1 Outs Above Average).
Big-time value: With his all-around game, Merrifield is tied for 22nd among position players in Baseball Reference WAR over the past three seasons (13.5), right behind Javier Baez and George Springer. He’s slightly lower at FanGraphs (10.9) but still in the top 40, tied with Anthony Rizzo.
An affordable contract: Merrifield signed an extension in January that will pay him a guaranteed $14.5 million over the next three years, plus a $10.5 million club option for 2023 (with a $750,000 buyout).
Why would the Royals deal him?
It’s understandable that they wouldn’t want to, but after back-to-back 100-loss seasons, Kansas City may still be at least a few years away from returning to serious contention, and Merrifield already will be 31 on Opening Day. The best time to cash in could be right now.
The club has three top-100 prospects, led by eighth-ranked Bobby Witt Jr., a shortstop who was drafted second overall this summer. But the Royals were not among MLB Pipeline’s top 15 farm systems as of August, and the organization has a ways to go to match the prospect stockpile that led to its 2015 championship. The current big league roster isn’t loaded with coveted players, so Merrifield presents the Royals with a rare opportunity to make a meaningful move for the future -- as painful as that may be.
Who should want him?
Between his positional flexibility and a contract that won’t scare off teams with budgetary restrictions -- self-imposed or otherwise -- Merrifield theoretically could fit just about anywhere. A couple of the teams that could use him, the Indians and White Sox, also reside in the AL Central, which could be a further hurdle to overcome for the Royals’ front office. Others, like the Red Sox, might not be in position to round up that overwhelming prospect package.
Here are seven other interesting possibilities:
Angels: Starting pitching and catching may be bigger needs, but the Halos’ lineup would look better with Merrifield setting up Trout. He could enter the mix at second and third base with David Fletcher, Tommy La Stella and Zack Cozart, while also providing protection in the outfield.
Athletics: With Jurickson Profar traded, the A’s have a few young options at second base (Sheldon Neuse, Franklin Barreto, Jorge Mateo) but none of that’s a sure thing. Merrifield would solidify that situation and team with Marcus Semien, Matt Chapman and Matt Olson atop the batting order.
Cubs: There’s going to be some reshuffling in Chicago, and a top-of-the-lineup bat would make sense. The club may want to leave second base open for top prospect Nico Hoerner, but Merrifield could help out there and in the corner outfield.
D-backs: They have flexibility going into the Winter Meetings, and their biggest needs are right field and either second base or center field, depending on where 2019 breakout star Ketel Marte plays. With a strong farm and coming off back-to-back seasons of 82 and 85 wins, Arizona has the means and motivation.
Nationals: This may depend on what happens with free-agent third baseman Anthony Rendon. If he leaves, there should be room here, even with Howie Kendrick returning and top prospect Carter Kieboom just about ready. Opportunistic GM Mike Rizzo can’t sit on his heels coming off the World Series title, with the rest of the division coming for the Nats.
Phillies: Two longtime infielders, second baseman Cesar Hernandez and third baseman Maikel Franco, were non-tendered Monday. Unless Philly splurges for Rendon, Merrifield could be the perfect solution for those vacancies and for what was a lackluster offense in 2019, if the club is willing to dig into its farm.
Rangers: Rendon, a catcher and a starting pitcher might be higher priorities right now. But second baseman Rougned Odor has hit .219/.285/.419 (75 wRC+) over the past three seasons. Is it time to try something else?