For small market MLB teams, staying competitive long-term can be a challenge. Us here locally in Kansas City have seen that first hand. One good stretch of being very good, one good stretch of being very bad. Another stretch of being very good, and here comes the bad.
Small market teams don’t have the financial capacity to sign Bryce Harper and Manny Machado this offseason. They also can’t re-sign their own free agents who have come up through the farm system and spent their entire careers with one team. Small market teams must build from within. Raise your own prospects, move them in waves, and keep ‘em coming. Sign a mid-level free agent once in a while to fill the holes. That’s how the Kansas City Royals won a World Series in 2015, and that’s how the Milwaukee Brewers are trying to win one in 2018.
The biggest difference between Milwaukee and Kansas City is that the Milwaukee Brewers are just entering their window of contention, while the Royals were in the middle or just past the middle of their window in 2015. The Brewers have Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Jesus Aguilar under contract for four more seasons after 2018. They also have Travis Shaw for three more seasons, Josh Hader for five, Jeremy Jeffress for two, and many more core pieces of the team for multiple seasons. The Royals had Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Lorenzo Cain under contract for just two extra seasons in 2015.
Here’s my point: When the Kansas City Royals decided to buy rentals only in 2015, they were making a “win now” move because there was no guarantee they’d ever get the chance again. They were the undisputed best team in the AL and they seized their opportunity. The Milwaukee Brewers are not the undisputed best team in the NL, and they have at least three more seasons with a really, really good chance to contend with the same lineup they have in 2018. Buying rentals doesn’t make sense for them. Don’t dig the same hole that KC dug itself.
Up until yesterday, it seemed like the Milwaukee Brewers had a decent shot of acquiring Orioles infielder Manny Machado. I wrote over at Royals Farm Report how it would benefit the Royals if Machado wound up in LA, not Milwaukee, but I also believe that it can help Milwaukee as well.
Manny Machado is a great baseball player. He’s been worth 2.9 bWAR (3.8 fWAR) so far in 2018. Pretty impressive. However, I believe there’s a better option out there for Milwaukee. What if I told you there was a different middle infielder who has been worth 2.8 bWAR (3.2 fWAR) that can also play in the outfield and has 4+ years of team control left, and he’s probably cheaper than Manny Machado? Doesn’t make a lot of sense, right?
When the Los Angeles Dodgers trade for Manny Machado later today they’ll be paying for a name and a lot of power. What’s more, Manny Machado’s career wRC+ on the road is just 104. That’s 4% better than the league average hitter. His home wRC+ is 137. He’s definitely been a benefactor of playing half of his games in Camden Yards. Whit Merrifield has similar splits, but you’re not buying Whit Merrifield solely for his bat. You’re buying his defense, his defensive versatility, his speed, and the fact that he can hit the ball pretty well, too.
To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that Whit Merrifield is better than Manny Machado. There’s a reason that Manny is going to command a guy like Yusniel Diaz from the Dodgers. But Whit Merrifield, when used correctly, can be close enough in terms of value and won’t cost you near as much in terms of prospect capital. When you’re a small market team, getting similar value for less capital is something you must constantly be doing, especially when one option helps keep your window open for more than three months.
Another reason that the Royals and Brewers matchup so well in a trade is that the Royals don’t have to command MLB ready prospects in return like the Baltimore Orioles may ask for. The Royals wouldn’t have to ask for Freddy Peralta or Corbin Burnes, two pitchers who can help Milwaukee down the stretch. Whit obviously wouldn't command top prospect Keston Hiura in return either, so what would a Whit Merrifield trade look like, and why would it work?
I did this already in the offseason, and you’d be surprised how close I was to getting it right. My mock was a bit playful, as I added Danny Duffy and Kelvin Herrera to the deal, but the return I asked for the three of those guys was almost the exact same package that Milwaukee sent to Miami for Christian Yelich. Here’s what I would ask for in return from Milwaukee if I were Dayton Moore:
- Corey Ray, OF, 23 YO, AA
- Kodi Medeiros, LHP, 22 YO, AA
- Zack Brown, RHP, 23 YO, AA
Neither of those guys register as the top prospect in their respective positions for Milwaukee. Both would be top 3-4 prospects in the Royals system. Both fit the timeline for the Royals rebuild, if not help speed it up a little bit. Imagine an outfield of Corey Ray and Khalil Lee roaming Kauffman Stadium by 2020, my goodness.
Corey Ray will be 24 next season and has been a bit of a late bloomer. He’s a super toolsy kid that still strikes out too much, but the power/speed combo is legit. He’s homered 16 times already in AA this season and has stolen 28 bases as well. He's got his BB% up to 11.5% this season and his GB% is a career low 38.2% as well. He’s slashing .247/.341/.478/.819 in 91 games, good for a 127 wRC+ in the Southern League (AA), the best mark of his career.
The other option to headline this trade would be 24-year old outfielder Brett Phillips, who already has some major league experience. Trading for Phillips would probably mean he goes straight to CF for the Royals. The reason I went with Ray here instead of Phillips is:
- A) Ray fits the Royals timeline better
- B) Ray has a much higher ceiling
- C) The Brewers may need Phillips down the stretch if one of their outfielders goes down
Ray makes more sense for both parties, in my opinion.
Kodi Medeiros is a 22-year old LHP that currently owns a 3.38 ERA in the Southern League (AA) and has posted a career high K/9 rate of any stop in his career with at least 20 IP at 9.26. He walks a few too many hitters (3.86/9 innings) but gets a fair amount of ground balls to make up for it (47.2%). He’s on pace to throw roughly 140 innings this season, and could legitimately be a piece of the big league rotation by 2020.
Zack Brown is another pitcher I like a lot. I’ve been high on him for a while now and he’s showing out in AA. He owns a 2.33 ERA, strikes out 8.75 batters per 9 innings, and doesn’t walk many. Oh, and his curveball is filllllllllthy. He doesn’t project as well as Medeiros, but he’s good.
Ray and Medeiros headline the trade for me. Whit Merrifield isn’t going to be around the next time the Royals are good. He could be good for Milwaukee in 2021, but the Royals won’t be good in 2021 AND have Whit Merrifield. It’s one or the other. Nothing is guaranteed, but you get the idea.
For a guy that probably won’t see the next competitive Royals team, the Royals would get their potential CF of the future and a middle of the rotation arm that should be ready to roll by 2020. Plus a lottery ticket arm that could be a starter or an effective bullpen arm with his fastball/curveball combo.
Whit Merrifield is a guy that can do so many things for a baseball team. He brings value all over the field and he’s on a dime for the next four seasons. He’s the guy that the small market Milwaukee Brewers ought to be targeting now that Machado is off the table, and the Royals need to be doing everything in their power to find a group of guys that they like back in return.