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 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.