The Royals’ Whit Merrifield Predicament

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Amidst a dark period where the Kansas City Royals wasted one first round draft pick after another, the Royals pulled off one of the biggest player-development success stories of the Dayton Moore era: turning ninth-round pick Whit Merrifield from an afterthought into a two-time All-Star

Despite not debuting until he was 27 years old, Merrifield has nonetheless made the aforementioned All-Star Games (in 2019 and ’21), led the American League in stolen bases three times, hits twice, and doubles and triples once each. He’s also played in a Royals-record 469 consecutive games dating back to 2018, the longest active streak in the majors.

Not only that, but he can play several positions and he’s an absolute bargain, being due just $2.75 million (up to $4.75 million with incentives) for the 2022 season (assuming one happens) with a $10.5 million team option for 2023.

Is Age Just a Number?

He’s also 33 years old already.

Of course, you probably know all of this information already, but it still is necessary to get it out in the open as we frame the predicament that the Royals face with their All-Star utilityman.

Obviously, we know that Merrifield is a very good player, is durable, versatile, has an exciting skillset, and is a fan favorite. Having a great story behind his rise is another plus. All-told, he’s an easy player to root for and for fans to get behind. As a result, it can be tough to look at his performance through a clear lens and judge objectively, not subjectively.

An Inconvenient Truth

From the day he debuted, Merrifield’s profile has always looked different from the prototypical 21st century player. Rather than play feast-or-famine with home runs and strikeouts, he was going to make contact and spray line drives across the entire field. For the most part, that has worked.

But, as he’s aged, it appears he may be starting to hit his decline. After slashing a cumulative .298/.348/.454 for a solid 113 OPS+ (with 100 being league average) in 2017-19, he was much more mediocre at the plate in 2021: a .277/.317/.395 line with a 91 OPS+, nine percent below league average. His OPS in 2021 fell exactly 100 points from his career-high .811 mark in 2019.

Looking at his Statcast numbers, you can see evidence of a gradual decline in play as well. Even at his best, he ranked near the bottom of MLB in average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit percentage, but made up for it with elite contact and speed, allowing him to still post high-percentile expected batting averages (78th-90th percentile from 2017-20) and solid, if unspectacular expected slugging marks (41st-64th percentile), while his expected on-base percentage usually fell around the middle of the pack.

In 2021, though, most of his percentile ranks fell across the board. Most notable were career lows in hard-hit (6th percentile) and barrel (12th percentile) rates. His total barrels went from middle of the pack to 30th percentile. His average exit velo was slightly higher than 2020, but his 12th percentile rank was still his lowest for a full season. All told, his expected batting average (66th), on-base (23rd), and slugging (25th) percentile ranks were all career worsts by a considerable margin.

Now, at the same time, his strikeout (90th percentile) and whiff (87th percentile) rates where the best of his career. Both of those rates are lower than 2018-19 (but higher than 2017), though it’s possible that his other percentile rankings are hurt by making weak contact on pitches he previously was not putting in play. How to quantify the impact of additional contact is hard to say.

Another part of the equation is that Merrifield has never walked much.. He posted a respectable 61 walks in 2018, but other than that has posted totals considerably lower his whole career (he walked 40 times in 2021). When he was hitting .300 this wasn’t as much of a concern, but with his average sinking to a career-low .277 in 2021, his usually-solid on-base percentage (.367 in 2018, .348 in 2019) dipped to .317.

Among 132 qualified hitters in 2021, Merrifield’s OBP ranked 101st. Amongst those below him, most either were shortstops (where offense isn’t as much of a concern) or swatted 20 or more homers, giving them higher slugging percentages in return than Merrifield’s .395 (which was 109th in the same group). Considering Merrifield ranked 57th in OBP and 77th in slugging (out of 135) in 2019, the considerable drop-off is certainly worrisome.

The Trade Off

Now, after all the doom and gloom of the previous section, it’s necessary to look at how the entire body of work comes together. While Merrifield had his worst offensive season as a big leaguer in 2021, he did benefit by spending nearly the entire season at his best position (second base), rather than bouncing around constantly.

This, along with playing next to a truly elite defender in Nicky Lopez allowed him to post a very healthy 1.7 defensive Wins Above Replacement (WAR), far and away the highest mark of his career and the third-most of any MLB second baseman. As a result, while his offensive WAR (which ranged between 3.2 and 4.4 from 2017-19) was just 2.4 in 2021, his overall total of 3.6 WAR is still very respectable—and matches his 2019 total while surpassing the 3.2 WAR notched in his breakout 2017 campaign.

Furthermore, while his Statcast speed percentiles have slipped slightly (from 93-94th percentiles to 87th), he is still one of the top baserunners in baseball. He was 40-for-44 in stolen bases in 2021, leading the AL in steals and ranking 5th in MLB in stolen base success rate. By a more advanced measure, Baserunning Runs, Merrifield rate as 7.3 runs above average in 2021, the second-highest mark in the majors, behind Starling Marte, the only major leaguer to steal more bases than Merrifield last season.

All-in-all, Merrifield’s hitting numbers have taken a worrying dip, but he’s been able to excel in defense and baserunning enough to offset those numbers—at least for now.

The Options

As stated above, Merrifield is now 33 years old. By any measure, he’s starting to get up there in years (in baseball terms, obviously). He’s currently the third-oldest member of the Royals 40-man roster, though the Royals do have one of the younger rosters in baseball. Also, baseball has increasingly become a younger man’s game.

According to Baseball America, MLB got a full year younger on average from 2010-20, with the average position player being 28.2 years old (down from 29.2 in 2010), though that number did rise slightly in 2021. With the modern pitching strategy increasingly revolving around stockpiling as many triple-digits flamethrowers as possible in a bullpen, this does not bode well for older players who may have seen their bat speed slow down as they age.

Want to look at it another way? In 2021, 8 of the top-10 MVP finishers in the American League were under 30. Six of the top eight in the National League are in the same group. The winners were 27 and 29, while both runner-ups were 22. There’s a good reason why getting younger players paid quicker is a big issue among the MLB Players Association in the stalled labor talks.

Another factor to weigh in is the Royals shortstop dilemma. Assuming Adalberto Mondesi maintains some semblance of health, the Royals will likely open 2022 with three bona-fide MLB shortstops on the roster that need to find their way onto the field. One of the easiest ways to do so is by moving Merrifield off second base (likely to right field), or moving him entirely.

What could the Royals get for Merrifield? Well, it’s hard to say, since some analytically-inclined teams may have zero interest in him due to his more old-school player profile, taking away potential suiters (and therefore leverage). His contract and two years of control helps, while his playing style and age do not.

Using the Baseball Trade Values trade simulator, Merrifield’s median trade value is similar to players like Gavin Lux, Austin Slater, Jeff McNeil, and believe it or not, Joey Gallo. His value is also pegged to be similar to that of prospects such as J.J. Bleday (#71 overall prospect) and Matt McLain (#90). Does this mean that the Royals can get a Top-100 prospect for Merrifield? Probably not if we’re being honest.

Maybe the best comparison to Merrifield is Josh Harrison, a utilityman who was dealt mid-season from Washington and Oakland. Granted, the A’s got him for only two months rather than two years, but even packaged with Yan Gomes, the Nationals only received three low-level prospects who amount to little more than lottery tickets. That’s not to say that Merrifield couldn’t get a better return, but it probably wouldn’t be that much better.

That said, with Merrifield’s age and the wave of talent coming to the majors, now may be time (once the lockout ends) for the Royals to move on. It’s a move that would not be easy for Dayton Moore to make or for many fans to take. However, with another window of contention approaching, it would probably be in the best interests of the Royals’ future to cash out on Merrifield while they still can.

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