Whit Merrifield burst onto the scene as a wonderful palette-cleanser after the bitter Omar Infante experience was finally flushed out of the Royals organization. Merrifield brought energy, high-contact, speed, and some defense, delighting fans and sparking the club. He was not a prospect by any means, and any club could have selected him in the Rule 5 draft the previous winter. Yet here he was, hitting .315/.335/.436 over his first 39 games.
Then the league figured him out. Merrifield went into a tailspin after that, leading to his demotion in late July. He returned in September to hit .307 over the final month, giving him a chance to compete for the starting second base job next spring.
The temptation by many fans has been to compare Whit Merrifield to Ben Zobrist. They are both white guys who play numerous positions on the field, who appear to be good at baseball, at least in their brief time with the Royals. However, that is pretty much where the similarities end. I mean, compare these to minor league lines:
Ben Zobrist was a beast in the minor leagues, Whit Merrifield had a really good 2014 with some okay seasons and a few underwhelming ones. Ben Zobrist also developed some big time power at the Major League level by changing his swing and became a 20+ home run hitter for three seasons, a mark Eric Hosmer achieved for the first time this year. Whit Merrifield has adjusted his swing as well and hit for some decent power at the Major League level, but it still remains to be seen if he can hit with the power of the Z-man.
But the biggest difference between Zobrist's minor league record and Merrifield's is in the walk department. Zobrist was one of the most patient hitters in the minor leagues. Merrifield drew few walks, and has carried that into his brief Major League career with only 19 walks in 332 plate appearances.
But enough about what Whit Merrifield isn't, let's talk about what Merrifield is. Whit Merrifield is a late bloomer who has become a useful utility player who can make contact and put the ball in play, steal a few bases, draw few walks, and hit for modest power. Who are some other big leaguers that might prove to be more useful comps?
Like Merrifield, Theriot was a College World Series champion for an SEC powerhouse program, in his case for the LSU Tigers. Theriot was completely bereft of power, while Merrifield has flashed some pop, but Ryan did show more of an ability to draw walks. He posted some unimpressive numbers in the minors - .271/.355/.337 - and was never listed as a Top Ten prospect for the Cubs. But after a strong start in 2006 for the AAA Iowa Cubs at age 26, Theriot was brought up to Chicago in late July. He was the everyday second baseman in September and finished strong, hitting .328/.412/.522 in 159 plate appearances.
Theriot never hit those numbers again, but he did stick around to have an eight-year Major League career, and was a useful 1-2 WAR player for the Cubs for a few seasons. His best year came in 2008 when he hit .307, drawing 73 walks and stealing 22 bases for a 2.2 WAR season.
Miles didn't really hit the big leagues until age 27 after a career line of .287/.336/.396, not far at all off Merrifield's career minor league numbers. Miles wasn't one to walk much either, with a minor league walk rate of 6.7% that went down to 5.3% in the big leagues. But Miles could steal a few bases, played all over the field, and was a useful utility player for eight seasons in the big leagues, with a career line of .281/.320/.352, peaking with a 2.2 WAR season in 2008 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The one-time Royals infielder hit .270/.340/.342 in the Expos system before he finally reached the big leagues at age 28. His minor league walk-rate of 8.3% is similar to Merrifield's rate, although he struck out far less, whiffing just 9.6% of the time. Carroll hit .310 in 16 games in 2002, then hit .302 over his first 31 games of 2003 before his numbers began to slide. He never hit for much power, but developed a good walk rate and played solid defense all over the infield, spending 12 years in the Major Leagues.
Most of these example had fairly long Major League careers, but we should also consider the possibility that Merrifield will be a brief phenom, like Bo Hart was for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2003. Hart was promoted to the Cardinals after a fairly lackluster minor league track record. By 2003, Hart was 27 with a career line of .263/.338/.390 in the minor leagues, very similar to Whit Merrifield. Hart was a sensation upon arriving in St. Louis, hitting .322/.366/.437 over his first 40 games. But the league figured him out, and he hit just .217 over his final 37 games in 2003 and played just 11 Major League games the rest of his career.
Other potential comps may include David Eckstein, who was a bit of a late bloomer and depended on contact, but drew walks as well, Aaron Ledesma, who only lasted a few years in the big leagues due to an inflated batting average, and former Royals infielder Mike Aviles, who didn't draw walks, but hit for much more power than Merrifield.
Based on history, we probably shouldn't expect Merrifield to be anything more than a stop-gap solution at second base until they find a long-term answer, or perhaps a nice reserve utility infielder to fill out the roster. However, Merrifield did not get to the big leagues by being limited by expectations, and if you were going to bet on a player to exceed his natural talents, it would be someone with the work ethic of Whitley Merrifield.