Question: Who led the Major Leagues in hits and stolen bases during the 2018 regular season? If you don’t already know the answer, chances are you didn’t expect this name: Whit Merrifield of the Kansas City Royals, with 192 hits and 45 steals. His impressive 2018 season was highly shrouded by the considerable mediocrity (or downright atrocity) of the Royals, who finished last in a weak AL Central with just 58 wins and a -195 run differential. But with 5.5 bWAR, 5.2 fWAR, a 120 wRC+, and a .304/.367/.438 slash line, Merrifield contributed consistency and maturity to a lineup with an increasing focus on developing young hitters gaining major league experience. However, as he approaches just his second full Major league season, Merrifield turns 30 in January, with his window of high-level competitiveness at the major league level potentially closing not long after it burst open. So, more important question: Should Whit Merrifield be a trade piece for the Royals during the 2018-19 offseason?
It is undeniable that Merrifield would be highly valuable to a contender in the near future. With his aforementioned offensive value in addition to positive defensive value contributed as a 2nd baseman with some versatility to play in the outfield, Merrifield is an all-star caliber player who would start every day on any current MLB roster. In addition, Merrifield earned the league minimum salary in 2018, and is still in pre-arbitration in 2019, making him an extremely cost-effective addition to any team and nearly eliminating luxury tax concerns. With this unique combination of all-star value and affordability, the Royals have the power to command a highly desirable return for Merrifield, who will be a trade target for many teams looking to supplement their offenses and contend immediately.
Arguably the only concern surrounding Merrifield other than his age is a lack of postseason experience. Despite seeming like a perfect fit with the style of play of the championship 2015 Royals, Merrifield didn’t make it to the Majors until 2016, his age 27 season. Thus, he never saw the playoffs in Kansas City, a factor which should have a negligible impact on his value to a potential trade suitor, of which he looks to have many.
Every contender would be willing and able to move their lineup around in some way to fit in Merrifield, and for this reason, the Royals should have no trouble finding a trade partner. The Phillies were connected to Merrifield in trade rumors at the trade deadline, and it would make sense for them to pursue a player such as Merrifield as they appear to be at the beginning of a competitive window.
Similarly, the Brewers and A’s both contended this year after missing the playoffs in 2017 and appear to be ready to contend for the foreseeable future. The Brewers do not have a true second baseman right now, and the contract expiration of Mike Moustakas makes the Brewers a likely suitor for another source of offense. The A’s played through 2017 with Jed Lowrie as their primary second baseman, and despite Lowrie’s productive season, they will likely seek another option as Lowrie enters his age 35 season.
The Cubs are a slightly different story, as lineup shuffling with the departure of Daniel Murphy and the seemingly imminent departure of Addison Russell creates the necessity for a middle infielder to relieve Javier Báez and Ben Zobrist of playing every day. Perhaps a rising contender such as the White Sox may even seek to add Merrifield. The Cubs, Brewers, White Sox and A’s have all been trade partners with the Royals in recent years.
With all of this in mind, the Royals should treat Merrifield as their most valuable trade asset, and actively seek to swap him before competitors take to the free agent market to address their middle infield needs. Given his age and current value, there is no better time to trade Merrifield, and the Royals will get a return for him now which may provide even more value when they return to competitiveness.
However, it seems most likely that GM Dayton Moore and the Royals will hold onto Merrifield as a piece of their hopeful resurgence into contention. Indeed, Moore stated at the trade deadline that Merrifield “certainly” would not be traded then, saying that the Royals “need him in our city and on our team.” Moreover, Moore’s recent trade activity for prospects who are very close to the MLB level suggests that the Royals look to see this resurgence sooner rather than later. The swaps of Moustakas to the Brewers for Brett Phillips and Jorge López and of Wade Davis for Jorge Soler with the Cubs are both indicative of this, as Soler and Phillips have already seen regular playing time with the Royals. As he shows a trend of improvement from year to year and the Royals look to bounce back from a down 2018, Merrifield may fit in best in Kansas City, the only organization he has ever been a part of. Perhaps in fulfilling a role of leading and supplementing younger players, Merrifield may lead a new generation of Royals to the postseason sooner than expected, as Dayton Moore hopes.
Featured photo: Keith Allison