The Kansas City Royals have finally begun the fire sale that we all knew was coming. Jon Jay and Kelvin Herrera are gone, and you can bet that teams are calling to check in on several other Royals players as well.
One of the names that teams will target will be 2B/1B/CF/LF/RF and 2017 AL stolen base leader Whit Merrifield. Whit Merrifield has become a fan favorite in Kansas City and it’s really no secret why. He’s currently slashing .293/.370/.421/.791 with 15 SB and a 118 wRC+ in 69 games this season and has done it while playing all over the field. Merrifield has played 2B and CF at a well above average clip defensively and has even flashed the ability to play LF/RF adequately. He’s probably one of (if not the only) Royals 2018 All-Star and Royals fans will not be happy to see him move.
But he may. If the Royals can get a good haul in return for Whit Merrifield they absolutely need to trade him. The farm system has improved, but it’s still looking like a 2-3 year rebuild (minimum) and the Royals need to do everything in their power to expedite that. Trading Whit Merrifield can do just that.
Josh Duggan wrote an article recently about how the Royals need to make trading Whit Merrifield a top priority this season. In the article, Josh references that Merrifield’s value may never be higher than it is right now. With that I agree 100%. He’s walking more. He has tons of club control left. He’s not getting any younger. All of these things are true and they all point to the Royals trading Whit Merrifield in 2018, but the Royals need to be cautious while doing so.
The Royals could very easily mess up a Whit Merrifield trade. Alex Gordon is owed $20M next season and the Royals have attached bad contracts to trades before (Scott Alexander). Here are a few things I would caution the Royals front office to do before making a trade involving Whit Merrifield.
- DO NOT attach a bad contract to Whit Merrifield. Get the best prospects possible in return and do not do anything to prevent that.
- Have a set return in mind for Merrifield and do not budge until you get what you want. He’s under contract through 2022. Use that as leverage or don’t trade him at all.
- Understand that you have a TV contract coming up. Use that as leverage. The fans will want a reason to watch. If you don’t get what you want for Merrifield, hold on to him. You can try again next year.
Those would be my absolutes. The Royals can not afford to bend on any of those rules when trading Whit Merrifield. A return for Whit Merrifield could turn this rebuild around tenfold. Messing up a Whit Merrifield trade could delay it equally.
Whit Merrifield has quickly become the Royals most valuable trade asset. (It’s really probably Salvador Perez, but everything I've seen suggests that Salvy isn’t going anywhere.) He’s one of just four second basemen in all of baseball with 2+ fWAR (Altuve, Gennett, Lowrie are the others). He’s defended CF at an impressive rate and plays 2B just fine as well. With Whit Merrifield having as much trade value as he does, it’s important that the Royals capitalize on as much of it as humanly possible. Let’s break down a possible Whit Merrifield trade and what the Royals need to be looking to get in return.
Brandon Drury was traded this offseason to the New York Yankees in a three-team swap. In order to land Brandon Drury, the Yankees were forced to give up 2B prospect Nick Solak and RHS prospect Taylor Widener. Solak was ranked as the Yankees 8th best prospect at the time but he is now ranked as the 5th best 2B prospect in all of baseball by MLB Pipeline. The kid is a stud. Taylor Widener was ranked as the Yankees 14th best prospect at the time, after posting a 3.39 ERA in 119.1 IP in High-A last season where he struck out 129 batters and walked only 50. He is now dominating AA with the D-Backs. Let’s compare Brandon Drury and Whit Merrifield, so you get a better sense of why the two are so similar.
- Whit Merrifield: 4.5 years of team control, on pace for 4.7 fWAR/162 games, plays 2B/LF/CF/RF adequately, 29 years old, posted 2.9 fWAR in 145 games last season, 118 wRC+
- Brandon Drury: 4 years of team control, put up 1 fWAR in 135 games in 2017, plays 2B/3B, 25 years old, posted a 92 wRC+ before being traded
What we’ve learned:
Whit Merrifield is, clearly, the better baseball player to date. He ranks better than Brandon Drury at almost everything. The difference here is that Whit Merrifield is four years older than Brandon Drury and Brandon Drury looks like he could be a very Whit Merrifield-ish player in his prime. So while, yes, Merrifield is a better player at the moment, the Yankees were buying in to the potential for Drury, while another team would be buying the current for Merrifield. For this reason, they ought to represent pretty similar trade value. Let’s see what the Royals could be looking at in a return for Whit Merrifield.
In order to sell something, there needs to be a market for your product. According to FanGraphs, there have only been three second basemen more valuable than Merrifield this season, but that comes with some caveats. There are about 13 teams in baseball that are realistically in contention for a playoff spot in 2018. Of those 13, 8 are pretty well set at 2B. Let’s take a look at the five teams that could potentially use Whit Merrifield.
The Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are 1.5 GB of the AZ Diamondbacks at the time of writing this (Tuesday afternoon). They are also running out the likes of Joc Peterson who has a .348 OPS against LHP, Yasiel Puig and his .616 OPS against LHP, Yasmani Grandal (.673 OPS against LHP), and Logan Forsythe who has a .602 OPS overall (.545 against LHP) and is due roughly $5.06M for the rest of the season. The Dodgers need some more guys in that lineup against LHP and the Royals just saved $4.4M when they traded Kelvin Herrera. If I was Kansas City, I'd propose to swap Merrifield and Forsythe, take on Forsythe’s contract for the rest of 2018, and ask for prospects Jeren Kendall (OF, Dodgers #6) and Gavin Lux (SS, candidate for mid-season top 100) in return. The prospect return would give Kansas City two new top prospects and would allow the Dodgers to acquire someone like Brad Hand who still has money left on his contract (would currently push LA over the luxury tax limit).
Yes, the Cleveland Indians could certainly use the services of Whit Merrifield at the moment. They currently lead the AL Central by 3 games over the Minnesotuhhhh Detroit Tigers...? They seem to have the Central in the bag but they're going to need to help out their pitching staff if they want to make a run in the postseason. They are currently running out Jason Kipnis and Erik Gonzalez at 2B, who are not getting the job done. Kipnis is owed a lot more money over the next season and a half than Logan Forsythe, so Cleveland would have to send some money back to KC if they wanted to do a Forsythe style swap, but it could theoretically help the prospect return for KC.
They also don’t have much money to make big moves, and you can bet that Boston, Houston, and New York will be looking to make some noise around the trade deadline. Adding Merrifield does just that, but it also helps them extend their window a bit by adding a very cheap player with four years of control. The Indians top three prospects will probably all be deemed as untouchable, but there’s one guy that the Royals need to get back in any proposed trade with Cleveland, and that’s 3B prospect Nolan Jones. Jones has posted wRC+’s of 118, 171, and 140 across three levels since debuting back in 2016, and he’s currently ranked as the Indians 5th best prospect. The Royals would have to get him in return for any trade for Merrifield, plus one or two more guys they liked from Cleveland’s system. Guys like Aaron Civale, Conner Caple, Sam Hentges, etc.
The Seattle Mariners
The Mariners, for what ever reason, are currently only 2 GB of the Houston Astros in the AL West and are 8.5 games ahead of the next closest Wild Card team. I picked them to make the playoffs in 2018 and by golly they are on pace. They’re also going to need to bolster their roster a bit with limited resources if they’re going to do so. They’ve got a couple of good prospects at the top of their list, but they have a system that’s overall worse than even the Royals. Robinson Cano will be ineligible for the 2018 playoffs, and with Guillermo Heredia disappearing over the last month, Whit Merrifield would give the Mariners two options for 2B/CF to go with Dee Gordon. A trade to Seattle would have to lean heavily on the Royals scouts to find several guys they like, but GM Jerry Dipoto hasn’t been shy about making big-time trades in the past. You could ask him for top guys like Kyle Lewis and Evan White, but I'm not sure what kind of position Seattle is in to make a move like that.
The Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox have been rumored to be interested in Colorado 2B DJ LeMahieu in trade talks, but adding Whit Merrifield would give them more versatility and more team control as LeMahieu is set to walk this offseason. Whit is also currently out hitting DJ LeMahieu by a fairly decent mark, and LeMahieu plays in the friendly confines of Coors Field. The problem is that Boston may not have enough to bargain with to get Whit Merrifield. Any discussion probably starts with 3B prospect Michael Chavis, he of the 80-game PED suspension. The Royals clearly don’t care about that (Bonifacio), so it shouldn’t be an issue. Chavis hit 31 HR last season between High-A and AA and was set to play in AAA as a 22-year old this season. With Rafael Devers being the apparent 3B of the future for Boston, they’d probably be okay with moving their top prospect. Dave Dombrowski has never hesitated to move prospects before, after all. Chavis is listed as MLB Pipeline’s 70th best overall prospect in baseball at the moment. The other piece in return for KC would have to be someone the scouts like, because Boston’s farm system is not very good overall.
The St. Louis Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals are currently running out a 2B/RF combination that have an average OPS of 583.5. “Not great, Bob.” They could certainly use some help in the lineup as the Cardinals are growing restless from not making the playoffs in...two years. I wrote an article last weekend detailing how I thought the Cardinals could make sense for a trade with the Royals. While that trade is no longer possible, I still think there are pieces that could certainly help both sides. Whit Merrifield alone could command something along the lines of Ryan Helsley (RHS, Cardinals #4) and Oscar Mercado (OF, Cardinals #8), but there’s a caveat to a trade with the Cardinals that I think both teams should be listening to.
Alex Gordon is owed $20M next season. Dexter Fowler is owed $14.5M for the next three seasons. Fowler and his .555 OPS are killing the Cardinals. Since the Royals don’t figure to be competitive for the next 2-3 season anyway, they ought to try flipping Gordon for Fowler in return for Cardinals top position prospect, Tyler O’Neill. O’Neill is a 22-year old that is destroying AAA right now. With Tommy Pham and Marcell Ozuna (good players) blocking two outfield spots, and Dexter Fowler blocking the other with his awful contract, the Cardinals may actually be willing to move O’Neill to be rid of Fowler’s contract. The Royals would, essentially, be buying Tyler O’Neill from the Cardinals for $20M in payroll over three seasons, something they absolutely ought to consider doing.
There’s no two ways around it: the Royals probably won’t be contenders for the life of Whit Merrifield’s contract. Keeping him around would be doing a disservice to both him and the rebuild. He needs to be traded, but it must be for the right price. The New York Yankees laid the groundwork for the Royals to get a couple of top-notch prospects in return for Whit Merrifield this season, and it’s important that the Royals don’t settle for anything less than that.