The Royals have few roster battles in spring training, having returned the core from their championship team last season. However there is still room at the end of the bench for a 25th man, and Whit Merrifield has opened some eyes in camp with a strong spring. He added 20 pounds to his 6'1'' frame over the winter to bulk up to 195 pounds. It has led to a hot camp, where he is hitting 7-for-18 (.389) with two doubles and two triples, although spring training stats should not matter too much.
Just who is Whit Merrifield?
Ned Yost is talking up Whit Merrifield lately. Could be a 25th man candidate as super utility guy. #Royals— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) March 12, 2016
Whitley David Merrifield was born in Florence, South Carolina, but attended high school in Mocksville, North Carolina, about an hour north of Charlotte. He played baseball at the University of South Carolina where he played all over the field, helping the Gamecocks win the 2010 College World Series. The Royals made him their ninth-round pick that year, a few picks before the Mets selected pitcher Jacob deGrom.
Merrifield was immediately assigned to low-A Burlington, an advanced level for a new draftee. He hit .253/.317/.409, playing exclusively in the outfield. The next season he was already in High-A Wilmington, a tough environment for a hitter, and he held his own hitting .263/.337/.369 with 24 steals, but he was caught 14 times. He played mostly second base for the Blue Rocks, although he spent time in the outfield as well. He repeated a season at Wilmington in 2012, putting up nearly identical numbers, and was promoted to AA Northwest Arkansas the final month of the season.
After failing to impress much in the Arizona Fall League, Merrifield went to Northwest Arkansas and continued to put up an underwhelming on-base percentage and slugging percentage, but showed good speed and positional versatility. In 2014, everything clicked for Merrifield at age 25. After 44 games at Northwest Arkansas, where he hit .278/.366/.463, Merrifield tore up the Pacific Coast League, hitting .340/.373/.474 in 76 games with Omaha.
Merrifield was left off the 40-man roster that winter and went unselected in the Rule 5 draft. He had a chance to knock on the door of the big leagues, but followed up his best season with his worst in 2015, hitting just .265/.317/.364 for Omaha. He stole 32 bases and played every position but pitcher and catcher.
Merrifield does seemingly possess two of the qualities the Royals seem to highly value - contact and speed. His strikeout rate of 15% in the minor leagues is not great, but he cut his rate down to just 12.5% at the AAA level, including just 11% last year. He has 122 career steals in the minors at a 70% success rate.
The outfield is where Merrifield claims he is most comfortable, but he adds versatility with his ability to play second base. There have been questions about his glove in the infield, but he should be fine in a pinch, and he has already made a few nifty plays this spring.
The Royals discovered last year how valuable positional versatility can be when they acquired Ben Zobrist, so Merrifield's ability to play all over the field is a plus. As Ned Yost said about Merrifield this year in camp:
"We were really impressed with him last year, too," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "You just kind of appreciate more his ability to be a super-utility guy. He can play all outfield positions, very solidly. (He can play) all infield positions."
In his professional career, Merrifield has played:
239 games in left field
220 games at second base
82 games in centerfield
64 games in right field
18 games at first base
16 games at third base
13 games at shortstop
He has even thrown a scoreless inning as a pitcher. That kind of versatility brings memories of former Royals utility infielder Willie Bloomquist, and that is not necessarily damning with faint praise. Having a player capable of playing that many positions may allow the Royals to be more flexible with the roster.
Merrifield is not currently on the 40-man roster, which gives him a bit of an uphill battle. Should the Royals decide to bring him to Kansas City to start the year, they would have to move someone else off the 40-man roster - Tony Cruz, Scott Alexander, and Jose Martinez would be some candidates. Merrifield has added muscle, but he should not be counted on to be much of a threat offensively. He has really only had one good minor league season, and at age 27 he really has very little upside left. Still, his speed and ability to play several positions give him a decent shot at making this roster.