The Royals Should Trade Whit Merrifield

What does Whit Merrifield see in the gauzy mists of his future?
(Photo: Minda Haas Kuhlmann)

Whit Merrifield is a pretty good baseball player. Despite not debuting in the majors until his age-27 campaign and recording 1,700 roughly average plate appearances in Double-A and Triple-A before that, Merrifield has now produced two seasons’ worth of above-average offense at the major-league level. His 5.3 WAR ranks seventh among all second baseman since the start of last season. The 120 wRC+ he’s recorded this year is surpassed only by the marks produced by Jose Altuve and Jed Lowrie among AL second baseman. And while that’s his primary position, he has also played first base, center field, and right field this year and does have some experience at third base and left field, as well.

That combination of offensive skill and defensive flexibility makes Merrifield the sort of player who can fit on a number of clubs. It’s also what makes him appealing as a possible trade-deadline target for contenders. The Royals have a piece from which other clubs should benefit. They should make every effort to find a deal that makes sense.

Merrifield’s appeal isn’t limited to his performance. Because of his late start as a major leaguer, he won’t even be eligible for arbitration until 2020 and won’t be a free agent until after the 2022 season. Those extra years typically add considerable weight to trade value, allowing clubs to avoid wading out into the expensive free-agent waters.

Also due to Merrifield’s late start, however, the prospect of his cost-controlled years is a bit different than for other, similarly experienced (or inexperienced) players. While his league-minimum salaries for this year and next are appealing, Merrifield is likely to have entered his decline phase for the last three of his cost-controlled seasons. Cost-controlled seasons can be a great benefit to a team, but most of that theoretical benefit is based on a player still in his prime and potentially even improving. Players can get better in their early 30s — Jeff Kent and Daniel Murphy come to mind as prominent examples of second basemen alone — but age-related decline is the rule not the exception.

To get a sense of how Merrifield might age, I looked for second baseman since 1995 at 28 and 29 years old with a WAR between 5.0 and 8.0 and age-29 WAR between 2.5 and 5.0. Note that this analysis doesn’t account for the fact that Merrifield was a mostly mediocre minor leaguer, but instead focuses on his good run over the last two years.

At age 30, the 12 players who fit the above criteria averaged a solid 107 wRC+ and 2.8 WAR. At age 31, they experienced a typical move downward, to a 103 wRC+ and 2.2 WAR. By age 32, only half the players recorded more than 2.0 WAR and, at age 33, the only players to surpassed the 1.5 WAR threshold were Kent, Ray Durham, and Eric Young.

Here’s how the players performed from 30 years old through their respective age-33 seasons.

Whit Merrifield Comps Age 30 Through Age 33
Jeff Kent 2570 109 .381 .543 137 -2.9 124.5 2.6 20.1
Brandon Phillips 2463 62 .324 .416 101 -1.8 1.9 43.5 12.9
Ray Durham 2230 52 .365 .451 116 13.5 57.8 -5.9 12.5
Daniel Murphy 1787 63 .361 .519 130 0.4 66.9 -8.0 11.8
Dan Uggla 2513 110 .335 .432 111 4.1 38.1 -12.3 10.8
Eric Young 2455 24 .363 .388 97 13.7 4.8 21.6 10.2
Brian Roberts 1860 32 .356 .430 107 10.7 28.3 3.0 9.5
Luis Castillo 2206 8 .366 .351 96 13.0 1.9 -5.8 6.8
Freddy Sanchez 1837 26 .322 .393 92 -0.7 -20.0 17.1 5.7
Jose Offerman 2140 31 .357 .384 94 -4.8 -19.6 -9.2 4.4
Mike Lansing 1723 35 .309 .394 64 1.1 -80.5 2.6 -1.9
Akinori Iwamura 489 3 .322 .326 80 0.7 -11.1 -14.2 -1.0
AVERAGE 2023 46 .347 .419 102 3.9 16.1 2.9 8.5
AVG/YR 506 12 .347 .419 102 1.0 4.0 0.7 2.1

Jeff Kent is obviously doing a lot of the heavy lifting for this group. Daniel Murphy, meanwhile, has half a season to improve his numbers a bit (although it’s been a discouraging year so far). One could make an argument it is unfair to include Iwamura in this group, as he went back to Japan after his age-31 season. One could also make an argument that Merrifield more resembles Iwamura than he does other players on this list when it comes to MLB experience, and it isn’t like Iwamura played well in his return to Japan. Overall, the group is fine, and that should be the expectation for Merrifield as well.

Service time and potentially overrating cost-controlled seasons is merely one complication for the Royals in dealing Merrifield. The other is the market. In most situations where a player is years away from free agency, a team could wait for the winter and get a better deal. That might not be the case with Merrifield, however. Murphy, Brian Dozier, DJ Lemahieu, and probably Josh Harrison are all hitting the market this offseason. Even after those names, Logan Forsythe and Neil Walker will be free agents and Starlin Castro will likely be available in a trade. Merrifield is probably more appealing than many of those names, but how much more? Will teams be willing to give up legitimate prospects with decent options available for just cash?

The Royals could opt to hold on to Merrifield as they rebuild, but they currently have little in the way of legitimate pieces for their next competitive team. Just one player, Seuly Matias, appears in the most recent prospect rankings, and while they added to their system in the draft, those players are still several years away from being significant contributors. Players like Merrifield are important for competitive clubs, but given how far away the team is from contending, Merrifield might have more use for what he can fetch in a trade.

This isn’t to suggest that Merrifield is a bad player, at all. He’s been a remarkable success for the Royals and would make a good addition to many contending teams. There might be some concerns about Merrifield, as he hit 19 homers last season and has just five this year. Add that to his line being propped up by a .353 BABIP, and it might appear his production is a bit too good to be true. The 50-point drop in his ISO is alarming, but shouldn’t be too much cause for concern. Based on exit velocity and launch angle, his expected ISO last year was .181 and this year it is a very similar .186 figure. He’s already hit 27 doubles on the season, and if a few more of those doubles went over the fence, his power numbers would resemble last year’s, providing some insulation to a potential BABIP regression.

Merrifield’s projections, which give him a 95 wRC+ and roughly average WAR, still account for his less-than-great minor-league track record. Even if he isn’t the player currently hitting 20% above league average, he’s a valuable contributor, and he will be more valuable to a team that isn’t the Royals. His overall track record, age, and the market for second basemen might prevent the type of haul for which Royals fans might be hoping, but he should be able to net a couple more prospects, maybe one who will be as good as Merrifield is right now. That might not seem like a fair deal, but a future-Merrifield might make an actual difference in the standings and the present-Merrifield likely won’t ever be in a position to do so.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

I don’t know if I can completely agree with the sentiment. Even during a rebuild, you have to field a team. Ideally, you spend as little as possible fielding that team while you attempt to assemble your next core. Whit is cost controlled and pretty cheap right now. Not good enough to feel he is being wasted, but better than replacement. With his price tag, he’s the perfect bridge player while they rebuild. If another team isn’t going to give you good value in prospects on a deal, I really don’t see any point in trading him.

Six Ten
5 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

The question is when that rebuild ends though. There’s no reason at all, given where the Royals are now, to think they’ll be competing before he’s off his cost-controlled deal. Every year you keep him you get less return for a trade. He’ll almost certainly not be worth a QO at the end of arbitration.

Fielding a team of scrubs isn’t pretty, but it makes far more sense than watching a very valuable player lose that value on you while you’re losing 100 games a year.

5 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

Agree with v2micca. Moore still has to sell tickets and if you field a team of AAA/AAAA players they’ll be back to having 12,000 fans/game showing up. Selling tickets still generates a good deal of $$ to pay your teams’ expenses. And don’t forget they have a new TV deal to negotiate for the 2020 season. They currently get $20 mil/year which is one of the lowest if not the lowest in the majors.

You also need to have some recognizable faces for the fans to connect with or why bother to come to the park. They’ll soon trade Moose leaving them with only Perez, Merrifield, Junis and maybe Gordon that fans most recognize going into 2019. All this talk of trading Perez and Merrifield for likely low end prospects is fool’s gold. Need to realize that the vast majority of minor leaguers are nothing more than trade chips. No sense buying a ticket if there aren’t bonafide major league talent to watch……unless the Cubs come to town.

5 years ago
Reply to  CubFan

I admit to not being the closest follower of the Royals’ fanbase, but are there really that many people that will stay home if the Royals are a 63 win team without Whit Merrifield but pay to see a 65 win team with him? I mean he’s a nice player but we’re not talking about someone you’ll tell your grandkids about someday.

If I were a Royals fan I would absolutely want them to trade Merrifield, assuming they can get back any kind of a decent return

Shirtless George Brett
5 years ago
Reply to  agam22

I’m a Royals fan and I want them to trade pretty much every single player on the 25 man roster.

5 years ago
Reply to  agam22

What do you think a decent return for Merrifield would be though?
I find it hard to believe that they could get back anything better than what Merrifield will be for the next 4+ years, especially with all the other infielders likely on the trade market this summer who may be available cheaper(and some better) as rentals.

Im not sure Merrifield’s trade value is on par with his current and future expected WAR.

5 years ago
Reply to  cs3

If they can’t get anything worthwhile back they shouldn’t move him. But that’s a very different point from ‘they can’t trade him lest they risk alienating the fanbase’

Shirtless George Brett
5 years ago
Reply to  cs3

How good Whit is for the next 4+ years is pretty irrelvant though because regardless of what he does the Royals are going to be terrible in that span. Trading him would be about shifting resources towards the future when they will hopefully be in a position to contend.

As for what the Royals could get? Who knows. In 2015 the Royals gave up Manaea who was a a back end top 100 prospect at the time and Aaron Brooks for a rental Zobrist though.

5 years ago

Exactly. Even a couple low level lottery tickets and a decent AAA reliever would be better than nothing.

5 years ago
Reply to  CubFan

They are already down to 24th in attendance at 20,000. Is there any evidence that more people will go to a bad or mediocre team (which is their ceiling over the next few years) than to a horrible one (which is what they are right now)?