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What to know about the newest Royal, Kevin Merrell

More Kevins!

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Oakland Athletics v San Diego Padres

On Sunday, the Royals began their trade season by shipping veteran starting pitcher Homer Bailey to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for minor league infielder Kevin Merrell. The 33-year old Bailey had been signed to a minor league deal last winter and was attractive to other teams for his recent run of strong performances, but also because of his very low cost, with the Dodgers picking up nearly all of his $23 million salary.

In return, the Royals get the 23-year old Merrell, who could be a part of their rebuild. Let’s learn more about the newest member of the Royals.

Kevin Custer Merrell is from the Tampa, Florida area, and was in the national baseball spotlight at an early age, participating in the 2008 Little League World Series.

Merrell attended George M. Steinbrenner High School in Lutz before playing baseball for the University of South Florida. He hit immediately, batting .346 as a freshman with 21 steals. He exploded his junior season to hit .384/.464/.569 and was named a second-team All-American by Baseball America in 2017. They ranked him as the 51st best draft prospect that year, writing “his top-of-the-scale speed and excellent performance could lead to him being selected on the first day of the draft.”

The A’s made that come true by selecting him in the first round, with the 33rd-overall pick in the draft. He signed for $1.8 million, about 10 percent under slot, and was assigned to Oakland’s short-season affiliate in the New York-Penn League. He hit .320/.362/.424 in 31 games with the Vermont Lake Monsters, and was ranked the 16th-best prospect in the Athletics’ farm system by Baseball America that year.

The Athletics had Merrell work with Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson on his base running and assigned the young shortstop to High-A in the California League, where he hit .267/.308/.326 for Stockton in 2018. But he dealt with a nagging elbow injury much of the season, limiting him to just 62 games and no home runs. Merrell moved up to Double-A Midland this year, but got off to a poor start and was hitting .246/.292/.339 with two home runs and 13 steals at the time of the trade.

Merrell is a left-handed hitter, standing 6’1’’ and 180 lbs. He does not have a poor platoon split, in fact, he has hit better against left-handers each season. He has been praised for being a heady ballplayer, drawing these comments from Oakland farm director Keith Lieppman:

“For a guy who just signed, he seems to have a real good sense of game awareness,” Lieppman said. “He comes from a good (baseball) school, so he understands where he’s at. He’s had good training.”

Merrell’s best skill, by far, is his speed. He grades as an 80 (out of 80) in speed according to Fangraphs, but that hasn’t translated into a ton of steals quite yet, and his success rate has been 71 percent in the minors. His bat seems to still be a question mark, with MLB Pipeline ranking him 17th in the Oakland organization before the year, writing:

He’s still learning his left-handed swing and he had a tendency to hook balls on the ground early on. He’s now working on getting some separation so he can impact the ball, and he’s learning to slash the ball to the left side so he can use his legs to help him more. The combination of approach and speed could make him an above-average hitter, albeit one with little power, in time.

Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel at Fangraphs seem to agree, ranking him #20 in the Oakland farm system and a 40 FV prospect, writing:

His approach is solid but not great, in part because he has above average bat control and, obviously, the speed to outrun softly-hit balls. There’s enough power to hit homers to the pull side when he gets ahold of a fastball in, but not much in way of home run potential. He’s gotten a little too pull-heavy in pro ball and should use more of an all-fields approach to have a shot to develop the contact skills he needs to turn into a low-end regular.

Melissa Lockard at The Athletic notes that Merrell “chased more out of his hitting zone than he should have” last year. Merrell has just a 6 percent walk rate as a professional, with a strikeout rate over 20 percent.

Defensively, Merrell has played most of his games at shortstop, but there seems to be questions on whether he will stick there. MLB Pipeline writes he is “unorthodox defensively” at short, and Longenhagen and McDaniel write Merrell “doesn’t quite have the hands or actions for the infield; he could work his way into being a passable second baseman, but we would guess center field is where he lands.”

The Royals had coveted Merrell as a draft prospect as a speedster with defensive versatility. He will begin his Royals career at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, joining a team that already leads the Texas League in steals by a good margin with 152, paced by speedsters like Nick Heath and Khalil Lee. Merrell can start at short over veteran journeyman Taylor Featherston, pairing with second baseman Gabriel Cancel for double plays

Merrell has already advanced to higher levels and has the pedigree of being one of the top players in the draft just two years ago. He has the blazing speed the Royals covet and plays premium defensive positions up the middle. However his hit tool hasn’t developed much and the upside for his bat seems rather limited at this point. He will likely have to move off shortstop, although that shouldn’t be too much of a concern for the Royals considering their depth at that position. Merrell’s best bet to make the big leagues seems to be as a utility player who can bring speed to the table, which may not make him a star, but could still make him a valuable asset that saves the Royals from having to making a mistake in the free agent market.


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