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Whit Merrifield and the stress of being not quite good enough

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A minor league journeyman's life isn't an easy one.

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Sometimes, you get Stephen Strasburg - a college pitcher with all of the talent in the world, blessed with size, strength, and skill. The mere possibility of Strasburg's Major League dominance netted him $15.1 million from the Washington Nationals before he ever started a windup as a professional baseball player. Strasburg struck out 14 batters in his first MLB start, and has a career ERA of 3.08 over seven successful seasons, suffering a Tommy John surgery as his only roadblock.

Sometimes, you get Tom Zebroski. A college player with some talent, Zebroski had a mildly successful collegiate career at George Washinton University, being named a Louisville Slugger Third Team All-American his senior year. The 5' 10" Zebroski was drafted in the 45th round of the 2010 draft by the Kansas City Royals after 1,348 talented individuals. He never really had a chance. Will McDonald, founder of Royals Review, profiled him in January of 2011 after an underwhelming first professional season, saying this:

Unfortunately, Zebroski's halting start makes it all the more likely that his time in the minors will be short. Though with a college background and a respectable playing profile he's well-positioned to land somewhere else in the game if he wants. Still, none of that is preordained.

In the comments, current Royals Review Overlord Max had this to say about him:

Anyway, yea, Zebroski better start hitting or he will soon start applying for gym coach positions

Zebroski never had a chance. He played two seasons of pro ball, his second being in an independent league, where he was moderately better, but against significantly worse opponents. He has not played baseball since and, according to his Linkedin, has now entered the real estate business in the Tri-State area.

Sometimes, you get Whit Merrifield. Drafted in the ninth round, Merrifield had skill, athleticism, and the ability to play multiple positions. While at South Carolina University, Merrifield hit a game-winning walk-off single to give the team the championship. Not a nobody, but not a top prospect, Merrifield slowly worked his way up the ladder until his age 25 season, where he had a breakout year and was promoted to AAA Omaha for the first time.

That year, the 2014 Royals won the American League Championship. They had Arrived, and there was no need for someone like Whit, who did a lot of things well but nothing superbly. Terrance Gore was awarded the 25th roster spot for that World Series, and Merrifield didn't even get a September call-up.

It's 2016 now. Merrifield didn't get the 25th roster spot to begin the season; Gore once again won that race. Merrifield is 27. Bubba Starling, younger, more talented, and more athletic, has started off his season electrically at AA Northwest Arkansas. Raul Mondesi, much younger, more talented, and more athletic, has also started his season off electrically at AA. Mondesi has one Major League plate appearance to his name, a strikeout, but a strikeout in a World Series.

Merrifield might never make it to the big leagues. Not now. A different team, a different situation, and he probably would have by now. But not for this mid-2010s Royals squad.

And he knows it.

***

On July 8, 2015, the Omaha Storm Chasers were playing the Iowa Cubs. Merrifield started at second base that night, gathering a walk and scoring a run.

Then, in the sixth inning, Merrifield was abruptly removed from the game. In Spring Training, lineup changes are commonplace. But even in the minors, fielders almost always play an entire game unless removed for a pinch hitter, pinch runner, or for an injury.

But there is another reason why minor leaguers, especially those at the AAA level, are removed from a game--an unforseen promotion. Almost 200 miles away, an event happened that was of personal importance to Merrifield.

That same evening, Logan Forsythe of the Tampa Bay Rays smashed a baseball thrown from the right arm of Jeremy Guthrie. Alex Gordon zeroed in on the line drive, hit to the warning track in left field at Kauffman Stadium. As he has done so many times before, Gordon pursued it relentlessly, sticking out his arm to catch the ball. Something wasn't right. Gordon took a few awkward steps, lightly brushed against the fence, and fell limp on the ground in pain as the baseball rolled gently a few feet away.

It shows in the box score as an inside-the-park home run, but it was a bit more than that. Gordon would miss two months with an injury, depriving Royals fans of seeing their best player since George Brett play what was, at the time, likely his final season with the Royals barring a free agency miracle. Consequently, the injury broke Gordon's Gold Glove award streak, the 2015 award being given to a man who played in the National League after the All-Star break and whose poor defense in the 2015 World Series has been seared into history forever.

For the Royals, Gordon's injury was only a blip. Gordon suffered no setbacks in rehab and returned on schedule, the Royals won the World Series with Gordon's bottom-of-the-ninth home run now legend, and Gordon re-signed with the Royals in January to the delight of all.

For Merrifield, it ultimately meant...not much, really. Which, itself, meant quite a bit.

***

It's hard not to get frustrated. You've just got to keep playing well. Last year I feel like I kind of let my season slip away after the whole Gordon thing happened. I was having a good year, then I kind of fell apart there at the end. This year I'm hoping to be a little more mentally strong.

Merrifield himself said that at Omaha Storm Chaser media day, which our own Minda Haas Kuhlmann attended. Rather than dip into their AAA outfield, the Royals utilized Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando in expanded roles for a few weeks. After the All-Star break, the Royals went out and got Ben Zobrist, who played in left field until Gordon returned.

You'd think that Merrifield would have been more focused after Gordon's injury, as he recognized that this was his moment. But after the Royals decided not to call him up after Gordon went down...how could that not wear on you?

It's hard to say anything bad about what they did, because they won a world championship. So obviously they made the right move. But I felt like I could have helped. They made the right decision; it just kinda sucked for me personally. But it's a business, and obviously they did what they needed to do.

The Atlanta Braves are employing one Jeff Francoeur, again, after trading him away because he was bad years earlier. Now, he's even worse. With his positional versatility and Major League minimum salary, you have to think that a terrible National League team like the Braves would play him. In 2014, the Texas Rangers had roughly 32,098 injuries. Merrifield surely could have helped if he were in that system.

But Merrifield isn't. He is in the system that has a bizarrely deep set of AAAA outfielders with a team that has little incentive to try them out when winning a second consecutive World Series is first on their mind.

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Whit, the night of Gordon's injury (photo credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann)

To be fair, Whit isn't some amazing performer year after year in the minors. He has one year of above-average hitting to his name, 2014, and doesn't possess singular skills like Gore speed, Mondesi defense, or Vallot power. He has to perform to attract attention, and he hasn't really done so yet.

The last couple years, I've done all I can to open some eyes. I've always said the minor leagues are not where I thrive. It's hard for me to go out and play just for myself when there's not a whole lot of emphasis on winning. It is what it is down here. Guys are developing, guys are trying to move on in their career. It's a hard atmosphere for me to play in. I've done the best I can. I'll keep working on my game, and hopefully make that jump.

***

There are millions of high school and college athletes in the United States. Only about 1000 will be drafted and play any time for a professional team. As the years go on, international talent has entered the mix as well. Salvador Perez, Kelvin Herrera, Yasiel Puig, Johnny Cueto, Paulo Orlando...pitchers and hitters, these guys range from stars to bench players, and their talent cannot be ignored.

Unlike some other highly competitive fields, where age is not a factor, Father Time actively works against the dreams of these players. Merrifield only has a few more years left before he is a total afterthought. Realistically, Merrifield might never make it to the big leagues, toiling at the upper echelons of the minors, a Tantalus reaching for something that's in reach but somehow never quite there. After this year, Merrifield can finally test the waters of minor league free agency. But who might be interested in a 28 year-old minor league journeyman utility player with little to no upside left?

Merrifield's situation is one of many similar minor leaguers, whose talent has given their dreams wings and carried them past many other talented and driven people. But, ultimately, there are people who are never quite good enough. Sometimes, it's talent. But sometimes, specific situations stand as roadblocks. We usually see minor leaguers as names or vessels containing hope and possibility. They are human beings as well.