Okay, stop. These words I’m about to type are half for half entertaining and half thought experiment purposes. Usually you can take anything I write as my legit point of view that I endorse. These words that you might not even read aren’t quite that. I stand by the numbers but I don’t necessarily endorse the idea. Got that out of the way? Good.
A bit ago, Whit Merrifield said he’s interested in a long term deal with the Royals, that it’s “hopefully something that could be possible down the road”. Royals fans sure would be happy to have Whit around for awhile as the face of a franchise that’s in for a long road of pain. But the Royals are already in the advantageous position that regardless of what they do, they already control Merrifield for another four seasons, including one more at the league minimum rate.
At best (from a financial standpoint) the Royals can cut Merrifield tomorrow and owe him nothing. At worst, they are paying him the minimum next year and then constrained amounts subject to the arbitration system. The arbitration system is in place as a proxy to underpay players compared to their actual worth (the owners and their lawyers are geniuses sometimes).
In an open market, how much could Merrifield make if he hit free agency tomorrow, assuming a four year deal?
Now I used three wins as his baseline for next year. You could argue more or you could argue less, but let’s settle on three wins, matching his age-28 performance. Merrifield under that scenario is worth $86M. He surely wouldn’t get 4/$86M if he was declared a free agent immediately.
Whit is oft-compared to Ben Zobrist, another 2B with a later ager performance burst. Zobrist, at the age of 35 got 4/$56M in the 2016 free agency period. Teams have been a bit hesitant to pay “older” players recently (and Merrifield isn’t nearly as old now as Zobrist was), so it is a bit hard to see Merrifield far surpass what Zobrist got in free agency on a similar tenor. Hell, even decent young players are having their market depressed, as teams value the young homegrown guys more than ever.
Maybe we should look at how Whit might actually age, seeing how “older rookies” like him end up doing. So what I did was find players who had no plate appearances up until age 26, then had at least 600 PA from age 27-29, yielding these players as the top 30 in fWAR from 27-29:
Merrifield through age 29 is the best of this bunch by a full two wins. On average though, these older rookies put up 91% of their total WAR through age 35 in their first three years. That number is a bit skewed by players who declined significantly in their next six years, but that’s also part of the aging curve.
There aren’t many players who put up significant numbers after turning thirty, but Davey Lopes, Ed Charles, Melvin Mora, Bob Brenly, and Carlos Ruiz would be the jewels of this class.
In fact, if you want to be optimistic about Merrifield, Lopes would be your best example as the two share some similarities. Both were age-27 rookies, both played second base, and were above average hitters, baserunners, and fielders during their “prime”. Lopes aged very well, putting up his best numbers from age 30 to 34, posting a 117 wRC+ and and 23.1 fWAR. From 1974-1979 (his age 30-34 years) he was one of the top 20 players in baseball, and hands down the best baserunner by almost +10 runs.
If we gave Merrifield the same aging curve as Lopes, it’s probably a bit rich, making Merrifield the arguably the best player in the league at age 33.
Instead if you gave him a more natural curve, such as the same curve that the old rookies had, it looks like this:
That’s a lot more Zobrist-esque, who still has remained a productive player through his mid-30’s. Assuming that curve, his value would look something like:
If we wanted to look at an extension, we have to live with some assumptions. First, the Royals aren’t going to buy out his MLB minimum next year for a large amount, instead probably a significant raise, but not extraordinary. Second, we have to assume that players in arbitration only get 25%/40%/60% of their free agent value. Merrifield has already assured himself of some good raises just given his pre-arb performance, so we’ll have to give him more than those percentages, but not by a huge amount. Let’s give him 10% on top of it and then include two team options at another 5%.
The guaranteed amount, 4/$45M actually isn’t...too bad? He’d be worth double that in surplus. The option years are probably a bit too heavy, so what if we did instead something like this:
You’d have to buy that aging curve, but if you do, then potentially 6/$80M might not be outrageous. I wouldn’t bet on that, and instead I think I’d be more interested in this deal under this curve:
You’ve got Merrifield at a guarantee of 4/$39M with potential for 6/$64M, while having as much as $100M in surplus if he hits that. If things go wrong, say he drops off quicker than the above curve, you aren’t on that big of a liability still.
Even if you picked up those two options in year one, that are essentially dead money, Merrifield still would bank $30M+ in surplus.
Even if we mixed a bull case and bear case scenario, you still come up with 4/$29M and possibly 6/$45M.
Like I said, I’m not saying this is a good idea or endorsing such an extension, but if you buy into Merrifield aging well, you could actually be surprised at what his extension could be.
Should the Royals sign Whit Merrifield to a contact extension?
This poll is closed