Whit Merrifield has had a remarkable career. After being a starter for a 2010 National Champion South Carolina Gamecocks, he was a ninth-round pick for the Royals that had to grind his way to the big leagues. He was teased with a promotion in 2015, only to get passed over, and went unselected in the Rule 5 draft.
He finally reached the big leagues in 2016 at the age of 27, and teams figured out what they had been missing out on. Merrifield emerged as one of the top leadoff men in baseball, leading the league in stolen bases three times, twice leading the league in hits, and pacing the league with 42 doubles in 2021. He has become a two-time All-Star and an ironman who has played every game for the past four seasons. His versatility has also been a huge asset - he has appeared in games at six different positions.
Merrifield signed a four-year, $16.25 million contract before the 2019 season, an absurdly club-friendly deal that undervalued his performance. He restructured that deal this year to move around some of the money to different years, but it is still a reasonable salary for a valuable starting player.
The Royals may have signed the deal as a hedge against his age. Merrifield was a late bloomer, and his deal covered his early 30s, an age many players begin to decline. Merrifield has seen his OPS drop in each of the last three seasons, and through nearly half the season this year it is at .598, which would mark a career low. Whit got off to a slow start and was under the Mendoza Line by mid-May, but has come on a bit lately, hitting .271/.329/.368 in his last 35 games.
There are some reasons to think that Whit will continue to snap out of his funk. He has run into some bad luck - he has one of the biggest gulfs between his batting average and “expected batting average.” He continues to be one of the best hitters at making contact, and while his exit velocity isn’t great, it is actually up from last year. He is actually walking a bit more while keeping his strikeout rate low. His speed is about the same as it has been the last few years.
The time to trade Whit Merrifield was when he was at his peak, when the Royals were still clearly rebuilding in 2018 or 2019. The Padres were rumored to be interested in him back then, but the Royals were said to be wanting to be overwhelmed by an offer in order to trade their All-Star. Since then he has been a declining asset, although he still retains some value. The Mariners made a push for him last year, but could not close a deal with the Royals, who were seeking MLB-ready help.
This summer, Jon Heyman writes that the Royals are more motivated to trade Whit Merrifield than they have been in the past.
The Royals, a realistic group, will sell....The Royals are talking “more seriously” about the versatile Whit Merrifield in trade discussions than ever before, one rival exec said.
Merrifield earns $7 million this year, and $6.75 million next year, and with his ability to play second base or outfield, he could still be an attractive trade piece for several contenders. The Braves will be without All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies for several months with a foot fracture, and Whit could provide a solid replacement. The Giants could use Whit Merrifield to fill in at second if Thairo Estrada and Wilmer Flores regress, or simply to add some depth. The Angels need a second baseman, and while it looks like they have fallen out of contention this year, Merrifield could be their starter next year if they look to make a push. The Yankees, Red Sox, Brewers, and Blue Jays could all add Merrifield as depth either at second or in the outfield.
What would be the return for Whit Merrifield at this point? An instructive trade is the deal last year to second Adam Frazier to the Mariners last year with outfielder Corey Rosier and pitcher Ray Kerr heading to the Padres. Frazier was coming off an All-Star season and is three years younger than Merrifield. He only had one more year of club control, while Merrifield can give a team one and a half years before his mutual option that will likely be declined in 2024. Rosier had been a 12th-round pick that year out of UNC-Greensboro, and had hit .390/.461/.585 in 31 games at Low-A ball. Kerr was a hard-throwing (100 mph) 27-year old lefty who had a 3.18 ERA and 13.6 strikeouts-per-nine-innings as a reliever in Double-A and Triple-A combined. Neither were on the Mariners top 38 prospect list at Fangraphs that year nor Baseball America’s top 30 Mariners prospect list.
At this point, that is probably the expected return for Merrifield - an MLB-ready pitcher with a low upside, and a lottery ticket. It could help things this year if he continues to lift his numbers up and show he hasn’t declined too much. But teams will not give up top prospects for a 33-year old with the fifth-worst wRC+ among qualified hitters.
For that reason, it still seems likely the Royals hang on to Merriifeld. They will look for his bat to rebound, to fill in the lineup wherever he is needed, and provide leadership (and playful teasing of pitcher Brady Singer). They can easily fit in his salary, and if he does rebound, perhaps they can look to trade him this winter when there may be more suitors.
But the Royals do need to get younger. Nicky Lopez has struggled, but it would be good to get a long look at him everyday at second base to see if he is part of the future. Eventually Michael Massey and/or Nick Loftin will need to get a chance to show what they can do. The Royals won’t be able to get the large haul for Merrifield they once envisioned, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t look to trade him.