Whit Merrifield has easily been the team’s MVP this year, and according to Fangraphs, one of the top 25 most valuable position players in all of baseball. He won’t even be eligible for arbitration until after next season, so the Royals will retain his services for several more seasons if they want to.
The breakout season by Adalberto Mondesi has given the Royals perhaps their best double-play combination since the days of Cookie Rojas and Freddie Patek in the early 70s. But complicating matters is the emergence of minor league infield prospect Nicky Lopez. Lopez hit .308/.382/.417 this year between AA and AAA and has drawn rave reviews for his speed, defense, and baseball IQ. With the 23-year old Lopez waiting in the wings for an opportunity, where will Whit Merrifield play in 2019? Let’s explore the possibilities.
Starting second baseman
This seems like the most likely scenario at this point. Merrifield is the incumbent, starting 99 of the 149 games at second base so far. Lopez spent just 57 games in Omaha, and while his numbers were solid, they weren’t so great that he has forced his way onto the big league roster already. Having Lopez begin the year in Omaha would also keep the Royals from having to open up a 40-man roster spot for him, and it could possibly save them money long-term by gaming his service time.
However the Royals aren’t typically a team that games service time - they called Eric Hosmer up before the Super-two arbitration cut-off, for example. And the lack of experience in AAA shouldn’t be much of an impediment, they frequently have their top prospects spend very little time at the AAA level. Getting Lopez in the big leagues getting reps with his future double-play partner, Adalberto Mondesi, could be valuable for the long-term outlook of this franchise.
Whit has started in centerfield 25 times this year, more than any other position other than second base. In fact, only Abraham Almonte (remember him?) has made more starts in center for the Royals this year than Whit. With no heir apparent to Lorenzo Cain following his departure, Whit could fill the void. Centerfield was Whit’s original position at the University of South Carolina until Jackie Bradley, Jr. moved him off the position. His defense there has been adequate by the metrics, certainly not great, but he’s not embarrassing himself out there by any stretch, and he could improve with more reps.
But moving Whit to the outfield may make things pretty crowded. Alex Gordon still has one year left on his contract and is a very good defender, although his bat and age may be reason to move him into a more part-time role. Jorge Bonifacio had a disappointing season, but still figures to be in the mix. Jorge Soler still has injury concerns, but seemed to break through with the bat when he was healthy. Brett Phillips has good potential and the ability to play centerfield. And Brian Goodwin has put up decent Major League numbers and can play center as well. The Royals have gone from having little Major League outfield depth to needing to find enough plate appearances for all of their young outfielders, which could keep Whit moving to center full-time.
Starting third baseman
The Royals may have good depth at middle infield and decent depth in the outfield, but third base is a bigger question mark. Ned Yost once quipped there was not a third-base tree, and that is certainly true now as the Royals have struggled to find a replacement for Mike Moustakas. Cheslor Cuthbert showed some promise back in 2016, but has had two injury-filled seasons filled with disappointment. Hunter Dozier had injury setbacks as well, but was given an opportunity this year and has failed to hit much overall, although he has gone on a tear recently.
If the Royals are ready to move on from both Cuthbert and Dozier, it could be Whit you see manning the hot corner in 2019. Imagine the speed an infield of Merrifield, Mondesi, and Lopez could produce! However, Merrifield has played just six games at third base in the big leagues with a handful of games in the minors. Merrifield has shown himself pretty adept at moving around the field, and a full off-season preparing for third base could give him a better chance at fielding the position. But it may be a mistake moving on from Cuthbert since he is still rather young and showed some potential at the big leagues, or Dozier, who is hitting .277/.303/.543 over his last 24 games.
Whit has tremendous value in his positional versatility, having played six of the nine positions on the field in his MLB career. And having depth is crucial, especially if you don’t have a highly-rated farm system that can consistently produce solid replacements for anyone that lands on the disabled list. It is not far-fetched to see the Royals use Whit in a utility role, playing all over the field to fill in. He could fill in at second to ease Nicky Lopez into a Major League lineup. Lopez could also move over to shortstop on occasion to rest Adalberto Mondesi, who the team wants to protect from injuries. Merrifield could play centerfield depending on matchups, allowing lefties like Phillips, Goodwin, and/or Gordon to sit against tough lefty pitchers. And he could play third, left-field, and right-field as needed.
Whit would need to be on board with such a plan. He may prefer to have a more established role, and being one of the team’s most productive players, he should probably have some say in how he is used. And this would require some creativity on Ned Yost’s part, assuming he returns as Royals manager, with care needed to make sure the young players still get their at-bats. But this is a plan that could work and give the Royals some good depth if executed well.
Whit has been an outstanding player the last two seasons, but that may be the reason why they need to trade him. The best way to accelerate the timetable on the youth movement may be to sell high on Merrifield and bring back prospects that can address other areas of need. Having a player like Nicky Lopez ready to step in and start at second base makes it easier to deal Whit.
Merrifield he will be 30 years old by Opening Day, and there is a history of second basemen not aging well into their 30s. However, Merrifield does have several controllable years left, so the Royals may very well see him as part of their next contender. And trading him requires another team offering an attractive package of prospets for such a valuable player. With the trend towards teams hoarding their top prospects, there may not be a trade partner to make a deal work. Knowing that the Royals almost never trade their most valuable players until they are almost upon free agency, it seems unlikely they would deal Whit at this point. But if Lopez gets off to a hot start and some team panics and offers a top prospect next summer, who knows?
Where should Whit Merrifield play to begin next year?
This poll is closed
Starting second baseman
Starting third baseman
On another team