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Remembering Whit Merrifield, who the Royals mismanaged from the beginning

They didn’t know what they had

Whit Merrifield after getting taken out of the Storm Chasers game on July 8, 2015, shortly after Alex Gordon injured himself.
Whit Merrifield after getting taken out of the Storm Chasers game on July 8, 2015, shortly after Alex Gordon injured himself.
Minda Haas Kuhlmann

The Whit Merrifield story begins on July 8, 2015. Or, to be more accurate, it should have began on July 8, 2015. After barely losing in the final game of the 2014 World Series, the 2015 Kansas City Royals were on a mission: run it back, but win it all.

On July 8, though, the Royals found themselves in a precipitous spot. Star player Alex Gordon injured his groin attempting to make a catch in deep left field. Shortly thereafter, Merrifield, playing in Omaha for the Triple-A Stormchasers, was yanked out of the game for no apparent reason. In these situations, that generally means one thing: that player is likely to get called up to the show. Minda Haas Kuhlmann caught it on camera: Merrifield staring blankly ahead with a towel on his head. The moment he was waiting on might just be here.

It wasn’t.

One of the consistent themes of the Royals front office ever since Dayton Moore was hired in 2006 has been the existence of “in” guys and “out” guys. For no apparent reason, some players kept getting playing time regardless of on-field results, and others kept showing that they deserved more of a shot than they ever got.

Merrifield is unique in that, to his career’s detriment, he has firmly been on both sides of that line. Merrifield was ready for the big leagues in 2014, when he hit .340/.373/.474 in Triple-A as a 25-year-old. All the skills he would show in the big leagues were there: low strikeout rate, high contact rate, doubles power, and deadly speed.

The Royals declined to call him up in 2014, even though they found a roster spot for 42-year-old Raul Ibanez. Then, in 2015, the Royals didn’t break camp with Merrifield, and on July 8, Merrifield was hitting .289/.348/.393 with a miniscule strikeout rate of 11.4%. Had the Royals called on Merrifield, he probably wouldn’t have started. But a guy with a .315 average in Triple-A over 600 plate appearances? That’s no fluke, and we know it today.

Unfortunately for Merrifield, he wasn’t in. Who was in? Alex Rios and Omar Infante, despite every evidence to the contrary. The 34-year-old Rios, on a one-year deal, was hitting .221/.248/.262 on July 8, good for a wRC+ of 36. After hitting .252/.295/.337 with a 74 wRC+ in 2014, Infante somehow managed to put up a sub-.250 OBP en route to a 43 wRC+ in 285 plate appearances on July 8.

And with two black holes in the lineup, plus Gordon’s months-long injury recovery, Merrifield couldn’t crack the lineup. Cheslor Cuthbert could. Christian Colon could. Heck, Johnny Gomes somehow could. But not Merrifield, who admitted in later interviews that such a disappointment dragged on his psyche and impacted his game, which faltered in the rest of 2015 as he tried to do impossible: prove to a team that did not value him that he was the guy that he knew himself to be.

Of course, it didn’t stop there. In 2016, the Royals finally called up Merrifield as a hedge against the continually flailing Infante, who they released shortly thereafter. But the Royals didn’t give Merrifield much rope, playing him for two months before giving another “in” guy—Adalberto Mondesi—the second base job even though Mondesi had barely played second base in his professional career. It, predictably, went poorly. Merrifield was called up again and finished with 1.2 fWAR in only 81 games.

But even then, when Merrifield had demonstrated his competency, he didn’t win the starting second base job out of spring—though he was the best option. And even when he was called up for good in 2017, the Royals didn’t see him as a core piece.

Merrifield, who was in a four-man competition for the starting second-base job this spring, said he was told at the end of camp to “just go down there [to Omaha] and work.”

Merrifield was disappointed.

...Merrifield principally was called up to jump-start a sagging offense. “Whit is hot right now,” manager Ned Yost said. “It’s as simple as that. That’s why he’s here.”

Despite a dearth of other options and available playing time for a guy who would have fit perfectly in a bench role in 2015 and as a starter in 2016 and 2017, the Royals kept choosing worse options. Merrifield was only able to cement a spot in 2017 with his own solid play, yes, but without any legitimate talent coming down the pipeline to supplant him.

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield (15) is congratulated in the dugout after hitting a two run home run in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield (15) is congratulated in the dugout after hitting a two run home run in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

And when Merrifield broke out, the Royals, doomed by nearly a decade of draft class failures and league-worst pitching development, were toast. They lost more than 100 games in both 2018 and 2019 with Merrifield playing at the peak of his brilliance, notching 398 hits as the Royals decomposed around him. Merrifield was a Bugatti parked in a trailer park, and the Royals clung ever more desperately to their star the louder the noises rang out that Merrifield was the perfect trade chip.

Recently, Kansas City traded Merrifield to the Blue Jays mere weeks after Merrifield didn’t travel with his team to Toronto because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19, which has been without a doubt the single funniest thing to happen in Major League Baseball this year. But it is more than ironic. It’s sad, too.

Merrifield’s skills and talents are easy to spot. He is the definition of a professional hitter, someone who can make contact with every kind of pitch and hit the ball all over the field. He’s a talented defender who can play half a dozen positions and one of the more skillful basestealing artists of recent memory. In a vacuum, watching him play baseball for the Royals was a joy.

But Merrifield’s story is somewhat tragic because of things completely out of his control. See, the Royals had no idea what they had in Merrifield, robbing him of an opportunity to contribute to a World Series squad. Then, when they finally realized what they had in Merrifield, the front office refused to trade him even though it was the best and obvious move for the franchise to everyone except those in power. The result was that the Royals kept Merrifield from experiencing anything remotely close to competitive baseball when he could have made a difference for a competing team while simultaneously wasting their single best trade asset in a decade.

Maybe you don’t empathize with Merrifield. That’s fine. He’s a millionaire with lifetime experiences of being one of the best athletes in the world. However, I can’t help but think that the current world had one of the worst outcomes: Merrifield still hasn’t gotten to play for a contender, the Royals still lost a bunch of games, the Royals never got a premier prospect in return for Merrifield trade, and the Royals still ended up trading Merrifield but only after comments of his riled up a large portion of the franchise fans.

I hope Merrifield gets to experience playoffs with the Blue Jays. He deserves it, and thanks to the Royals’ trade, he’s gonna get a fair shot at it. I just wish the Royals knew what they had when they had it, and knew when to let it go.