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Whit Merrifield’s future with the Royals is locked into place, right?

Whit Merrifield’s new contract would suggest that he’s in it for the long run in Kansas City, but I don’t think his future is as set in stone as people think.

Kansas City Royals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

I can’t tell you how happy I was to learn the details of Whit Merrifield’s new contract with the Kansas City Royals. Upon reading the news about an “extension,” I was a bit terrified. Whit was on a cheap, controllable deal for four years, why did he need “extended.” Thankfully the details were released rather quickly and we find that the Royals got one heck of a deal on their late-blooming star.

So Whit Merrifield has a new four-year contract and he’ll be the Royals second baseman for the foreseeable future, right? Well, I’m not so sure.

Something has to give. The first and perhaps most obvious issue with the Whit Merrifield contract come in regard to Nicky Lopez. Nicky Lopez is the Royals fifth best prospect according to the folks over at Baseball America. Lopez is coming off his age-23 season in which he posted a 127 wRC+ at AA and a 109 wRC+ in his first bout at AAA. Lopez has a career .371 OBP in the minor leagues, and ought to be big league ready by mid-season. So how do the Royals fit him into the picture considering Whit Merrifield’s new contract?

The first thing I want to make very clear is that the Royals have options. The Whit Merrifield contract in no way limits how the Royals will construct their roster over the next four years. If anything, it may actually give them more roster flexibility. Let’s talk about two scenarios that involve Whit Merrifield and the rest of the Royals roster over the next four seasons.

1.) Whit Merrifield plays out the entire contract in Kansas City

Let’s say the Royals choose to keep Whit Merrifield long-term but don’t pick up his option for the 2023 season. How will this affect the Royals roster and minor league players between 2019 and 2022? To begin, here are some guys I think could be affected by Whit Merrifield’s presence on the roster:

  • Nicky Lopez
  • Blake Perkins
  • Nick Heath
  • Kyle Isbel
  • Michael Gigliotti
  • Gabriel Cancel
  • DJ Burt

The seven players mentioned above all play or project to play LF, CF, or 2B at the big league level, the three positions that I expect Whit Merrifield to play during his time in Kansas City. Nicky Lopez will be ready to assume big league time at 2B in 2019. Blake Perkins and Nick Heath could both be options in LF/CF in 2020, along with Kyle Isbel and Michael Gigliotti in 2021. Gabriel Cancel and DJ Burt are other 2B options that I like for KC that could be big league ready by 2021 as well (though with Nicky Lopez around they could probably play 3B also).

So here are the questions that the Royals must ask themselves for scenario number one:

  • Can we legitimately compete for the playoffs with Whit Merrifield by 2022?
  • Will 32/33/34-year old Whit Merrifield be a better option during the playoff run than any of the aforementioned prospects?

My personal best theory is this: Billy Hamilton and/or Alex Gordon are traded at the 2019 July deadline to be a fourth outfielder/defensive replacement on a contending team, Whit Merrifield makes a semi-permanent move to the outfield, and Nicky Lopez takes over full-time at 2B for Kansas City.

Then the question becomes focused around the Royals outfield prospects. Will an outfield consisting of Kyle Isbel, Seuly Matias, Michael Gigliotti, Blake Perkins, and Khalil Lee be a better option for KC by 2021? What about in 2022? If you asked me to play crystal ball, I would venture to guess yes. Which brings us to scenario number two...

2.) Whit Merrifield is traded over the next couple of seasons.

Don’t be fooled by Whit Merrfield’s new contract, he is absolutely still on the trade market. There will be plenty of folks who disagree with this take (@Shaun), but I truly believe that Whit’s new contract may make him MORE appealing for opposing teams. Cost certainty and affordability are never a bad thing. Teams don’t have to play the guessing game with arbitration. If Whit Merrifield were to go out and post a 7 fWAR season in 2019, after posting a 5.2 fWAR season in 2018, he’d certainly be looking at more than $5M he’s owed in 2020.

But we know the Royals don’t want to trade him. Dayton Moore loves Whit Merrifield and I expect him to be in Kansas City for a while, but there are certainly circumstances in which I could see the Royals moving on from Merrifield before the end of 2022. What would those circumstances be?

  1. The aforementioned group of prospects, namely Lopez, Gigliotti, Perkins, and Isbel, would have to be successful enough to outperform Merrifield, or perform as adequate replacements for him during a playoff run. The Royals certainly won’t trade Merrifield until he has an adequate, in-house replacement ready to go.
  2. The Royals run into a setback during their rebuild. Players regress, players get hurt, prospects burn out, the White Sox win 120 games/year for three years, what ever may be the case, the Royals are still scraping the bottom of the barrel in 2021. If the end of the rebuild doesn’t come into the picture by then, it may be in the Royals best interest to flip Merrifield for prospects to bring the end into sight.
  3. Whit Merrifield’s production regresses a bit and both scenarios 1 and 2 are all of a sudden true. The Royals aren’t in playoff contention AND they have prospects that present better options.

Here’s the beauty of the entire thing: at least one of the aforementioned prospects will work out. At least one of the aforementioned prospects won’t work out. But no matter what, the Royals will have security in the form of Whit Merrifield. Merrifield is the ultimate bandaid for a team that is potentially vying for a playoff spot with a hole or two in the lineup. He can play 2B, LF, and CF well. He can fill in in RF, 1B, and 3B in a pinch. The Royals don’t need him to be “the” second baseman, or “the” left fielder. Much like Ben Zobrist has done throughout his career, Whit Merrifield can move around with the best of ‘em.

It’s these unique abilities that also what makes him attractive to other teams. If the Royals ever find themselves in a situation in which they have adequate position players all around the diamond, Merrifield may present more value to the team in a trade. Or perhaps he would have value as a utility player coming off the bench as he gets further into his 30’s. In any case, Whit Merrifield’s new contract guarantees that the Royals will have some surplus value along the way, be it with him on the field, or in a trade. In any case, this appears to be a great deal for the Kansas City Royals and Whit Merrifield.