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Whit Merrifield - buy, sell, or hold?

What to do with Whit?

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MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Kansas City Royals Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

At the risk of infringing on Shaun Newkirk’s field of expertise, I want to talk a little bit about the stock market. When an investor has a rising stock, there are three options - buy, sell, or hold. All three are fraught with different perils. Buy the stock as it crests, and you could be throwing away good money. Sell a stock before it crests, and you will forgo potential gains. Hold a stock too long, and you could be stuck holding a bag of worthless paper.

The same holds true for ballplayers. Timing the market is crucial when it comes to trades, as Dayton Moore has illustrated all too well. Wade Davis was traded coming off some injury red flags, which may have hurt value. Joakim Soria was traded before he could resurrect his value, costing the Royals potential gains.

Many factors come into play - the age and health risk of the ballplayer, money, the needs of contenders, the quality of players teams are willing to give up, what skills the market values. And timing the market is quite difficult, sometimes it is only with hindsight we can say with certainty that the right decision to buy, sell, or hold was made.

The Royals have such a decision to make with Whit Merrifield right now. The second baseman who arguably should have made the All-Star team, is blossoming into the team’s most valuable player. Over the last two seasons he has been the 30th-most valuable position player in baseball, according to Baseball-Reference WAR, more valuable than Buster Posey, Manny Machado, Cody Bellinger, Bryce Harper, or Eric Hosmer.

But how does Whit Merrifield fit into the rebuild? What, if anything, should the Royals do with him? Let’s explore three options.

Buy, Buy, Buy!

Merrifield is in just his second full season of play and is already the fifth-most valuable second baseman in WAR. He is still in what would be considered his prime seasons, and could have a few more years of productivity left in what has been a difficult position for the Royals to fill since Frank White retired. He is versatile enough to move to another position if the Royals need him to, and can be a steady bat at the top of the lineup to set the table for future Royals sluggers.

Merrifield is also one of the more popular players among fans, and one of the only bright spots this season. He epitomizes much of what the organization loves to champion - speed, defense, putting the ball in play, handling the bat, working hard, hustling, doing whatever it takes to win games.

Although he wouldn’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2022 season, Merrifield says he approached the front office about a long-term contract after his breakout performance last year. Although the talks have yet to gain traction, according to Rustin Dodd at The Athletic, Merrifield seems eager for a commitment. The Royals are likely planning to be competitive again before Merrifield reaches free agency, so it might make some sense to keep him around as a cornerstone, much how the Astros kept their speedy young second baseman Jose Altuve through their rebuild process.

Merrifield’s age and the fact he hasn’t ever made big money in baseball (he was a ninth-round pick that signed for a $100,000 bonus and has never made much more than the league minimum) could make him a bargain on a long-term deal. And even if the Royals don’t buy out any years of free agency, they could structure a deal to give them cost certainty, and even frontload it to pay him more in the lean years, to give them more financial flexibility when they expect to compete.

Sell, Sell, Sell!

The big difference between Merrifield and Altuve, of course, is age. Altuve was a spry 21-year old when the Astros began their rebuild in 2011. Merrifield will turn 30 next January. Second basemen have a reputation for aging poorly, although there is evidence to contradict that wisdom. There is also evidence that speed tends to be a young man’s game, and is one of the first skills to erode in players. And Whit’s high-contact, low-walk approach may make him susceptible to big fluctuations in on-base percentage, due to reliance on batting average. The best second basemen comps to Merrifield had their skills erode in their 30s. With that in mind, how many good years does Whit Merrifield have left?

We could very well be seeing peak Whit Merrifield right now. And if that’s the case, the Royals should try to trade him while his value is at its highest. Adding to his value is the fact he has several controllable years left, and the baseball market has come to highly value years of control. He is not even eligible for arbitration until after next season, making him a bargain for any payroll.

The Royals could very well be through their rebuild by 2022, but how good will Whit Merrifield be by then, when he is 33 years old? And will they even really need his services anymore with Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez performing well? Trading Whit now can help fill other pressing needs that could be more useful when the rebuild is complete. There are teams that could use his services and there have already been rumors the Brewers and Phillies are interested.

Hold! Hold Hold!

It takes two to tango, or make a trade. The Royals need to be willing to move Merrifield, but another team has to be willing to give up a fair package of prospects. Since Merrifield is not about to become a free agent, the Royals are under no pressure to trade him, and can take a patient approach to the market.

But the market may just not be there. Teams are hot after relievers, not second basemen. Speed has lost much of its value in a game where teams wait for home runs. The Royals are right to want a big return for Merrifield, but other teams may not be willing to give that up.

Maybe a better market becomes available this winter. Or next summer. Maybe Merrifield has been a bit unlucky in the power department so far this year compared to last year because of his home park, and he hits more home runs in the second half. Maybe a rules change by Commissioner Rob Manfred makes Merrifield’s skillset more valuable.

The Royals may very well be best served waiting on the market to come to them. Be open to a trade, but keep your demands very high. Of course, there are risks in this approach too - Whit could get hurt, turn back into a pumpkin, or the market just never materializes like they hope it well and Whit’s valuable asset - his controllable years - shrinks.

If the Royals decide they want to hold onto Merrifield through the rebuild, they are making two calculated bets - that they’ll have a decent team 2022, and that the liklihood that Merrifield will still be valuable by then is better than the likelihood the prospect they can acquire in exchange for him will be valuable. Are those two bets the team can win? Timing the market is difficult, but no one ever said bringing a team back from the dead would be easy. Whit Merrifield is one of the only reasons to give Royals fans a reason to tune in this year, but ultimately his best value to the franchise could be with him in a different uniform.


Buy, sell, or hold on Whit Merrifield?

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  • 14%
    (214 votes)
  • 47%
    (691 votes)
  • 37%
    (545 votes)
1450 votes total Vote Now