Super-utility man Whit Merrifield knows where he is playing this year.
Well, he has a pretty good idea.
The Royals are hoping to make him their full-time right fielder in 2021 and are using Spring Training to prepare him for the task. The club is also aware that the best laid plans can change quickly.
“It's great to have versatile players for when the unexpected happens,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “I would love to throw five starters out there all year long, have the exact same bullpen and have a one through nine lineup that you just throw out every day. But that's just not the reality of our business. We're going to have things that happen, and we have to be prepared to stick and move and have the flexibility.”
Last season, Merrifield started 50 of 60 games in the outfield, including 28 in right field. He also made 10 starts at second base. Overall, he’s made 99 of his 184 career outfield starts in right field. For his career, Merrifield has made 379 career starts at second base. The presence of Nicky Lopez as the regular second baseman has paved the way for the shift to the outfield.
That said, Merrifield admits there is still plenty of work to do, starting with throwing to bases.
“What's been programmed in my head these last couple years is get the ball and get rid of it as an infielder and it’s different in the outfield,” Merrifield said. “You got to get it, make sure your feet are under you and really stretch it out so you can get that carry. That has been something I haven't been very good at the last two years and so Spring Training is going to help get my feet back under me and get my outfield footwork.”
The Royals want to keep Merrifield active at second base and other spots in the outfield, but the priority this spring is getting him action in right field. The club is in the process of putting together his schedule of starts at the position during Cactus League play and determining his overall workload.
“I think we're just trying to be really intentional about matching up where he feels he needs to have the most work, but also keeping him relevant everywhere,” Matheny said.
Merrifield is preparing for anything.
“If I've learned one thing throughout all these years, it's be ready to move because there's the chance that will happen at some point,” he said. “Somebody might get hurt or something might happen and so I'll stay sharp in the dirt and stay sharp moving around other places in the outfield as well, so I'll be ready.”
Royals going the distance
Barring any unforeseen circumstances related to an outbreak or testing, Matheny said he hopes to play nine innings in each of his club’s Cactus League games this spring, starting Sunday against the Rangers.
“I've been very clear, and I've already talked with some managers and talked with Major League Baseball and I anticipate us looking to play nine innings every single day,” Matheny said. “I don't know how many people are going to be thinking that way and they all have their own responsibilities for making their decisions with their clubs. But to me, there's a number of guys that we need to see. I understand we got to be careful because we don't have this wealth of talent over at the Minor League site that if we get low, we can go grab one of them, but there's a number of players here that we need to get our eyes on.”
Per the 2021 Operations Manual, games from the start of Spring Training through March 13 will be scheduled as seven-inning games, though they can be shortened to five innings or lengthened to nine innings upon mutual agreement of both managers. From March 14 until the end of camp, games will be scheduled for nine innings, though managers can mutually decide to shorten to seven innings. Clubs must notify MLB of any game length modifications by 5 p.m. ET the day before the game.
“We're walking through that right now as we're already in conversations with Texas about Sunday, but you have to both agree to go nine and I just don't know how many other teams are wanting to do that,” Matheny said. “But from right now and from where I stand, and as we have listed out everything from now until Opening Day, what we would like to see right now, and it looks like we want to try to get as many innings as we can.”