No player has been more fascinating to follow this off-season than Royals utility player Whit Merrifield. With Salvador Perez missing the entire 2019 season to injury, Whit took the mantle as the face of the Royals franchise a year ago. And even though Salvy will be back in action behind the plate in 2020, it still seems apparent that Whit will continue his role as the Royals’ franchise player this upcoming Spring. After all, what other Royals player could pull this kind of advertising and marketability off in a place like Kansas City, where they are about their products and culture?
However, despite Whit’s popularity and surge to fame the past couple of seasons as the new face of the Royals, his future in Kansas City seems to be questioned on a constant basis. Whit experienced his breakout in his late 20’s, and at 31-years-old, he’s not exactly at an age where players continue to improve. Rather, at his current age, Whit is more likely to regress in skills and production in 2020 and beyond than experience another campaign or two of growth.
Of course, some minor regression would not be a bad thing. As a Royal, he has accumulated 12.3 WAR over 546 Major League games. Converting WAR to dollars, Whit has been worth $98.5 million dollars as a Royal since 2016, according to Fangraphs. The fact that the Royals are only paying him $5 million this season, and only $10.25 over the next three seasons is an absolute steal, and quite honestly, may be one of the best bargains in baseball. For all of Dayton Moore’s head scratching-decisions as GM over his tenure, Whit, plain and simple, is one of Moore’s best success stories when it comes to talent evaluation.
However, the Royals are obviously in rebuilding mode, even with new ownership taking over this November. The Royals have been dormant in the hot stove action this Winter, as Moore has focused on acquiring “bounce back” candidates on the cheap, which include a former top Phillies prospect (Maikel Franco), a former top Yankees prospect (Chance Adams) and a former Cardinals closer (Trevor Rosenthal), just to name a few. And while it is possible that these acquisitions could work out in the end, these moves show that the Royals are not going to incur a lot of risk when it comes to building the Big League roster outside of the organization.
Which puts Whit in a precarious situation as a player. Yes, he represents everything good about Royals baseball: he’s a hard worker, he’s scrappy, and he produces on the field and at the plate. However, at 31-years-old, and having missed the Royals World Series run by a year, it isn’t fair to waste Whit’s prime on a team that won’t sniff the playoffs. He deserves that playoff experience and a chance to acquire a ring. Plus, it seems like Whit has been in high demand this off-season, especially from playoff contender clubs who are looking for a utility player who can produce at the plate and play multiple positions in a “Ben Zobrist-like” fashion.
Thus, Whit’s future is not just a dilemma for Moore and the Royals organization, but the fans as well. Hence, let’s take a look at both sides of the issue: “Why the Royals Should Keep Whit” and “Why the Royals Should Trade Whit.”
Why the Royals should keep Whit
Whit continues to be an affordable and productive option for the Royals in 2020. The Royals need talent on this roster, and the fact that Whit is the player who he is at the bargain that he is makes it difficult for Royals management to part with him easily. After all, it has not been easy for the Royals fanbase the past couple of seasons, as they have trudged through back-to-back 100-loss seasons. Trading Whit would only guarantee a third-straight 100-loss season, especially in a division where the rival Chicago White Sox boosted their roster this off-season. That is not exactly the kind of season John Sherman and the new ownership want to have in year one after buying the club for $1 billion dollars.
Furthermore, even with regression, Whit will be one of the Royals more valuable players next season. Steamer projects a .282/.337/.426 season with 14 home runs, 89 runs scored, 23 stolen bases, and a 2.0 WAR. While that obviously would be down from the past three seasons, remember, Steamer projections tend to be more on the conservative end, so the fact that Steamer is projecting at least a 2.0 WAR for Whit at his age is a good sign that Whit will continue to be productive as a Royal in 2020.
And lastly, it looks like Whit may be making the move to the outfield more full-time, especially after Nicky Lopez’s strong finish to 2019 and the acquisition of Franco this off-season. This is what Royals MLB.com writer Jeff Flanagan said about Whit’s move after the Franco signing:
While Whit can play multiple positions, he hasn’t exactly rated as a plus defender at any position over his tenure as a Royal. Last season alone, Whit was rated as four outs BELOW average at second base, according to Baseball Savant. However, last year, he was worth 2 outs above average in right field, and one out above average in center field. Thus, with Whit able to concentrate on one position (or at least one part of the field) specifically in Spring Training, this could help him become more apt in the field, which in turn will give him defensive value that could more closely match his production at the plate.
Why the Royals should trade Whit
While Whit certainly makes this team better in the short run, whether or not Whit is in the long-term plans for the Royals is another story. When his contract expires after 2022 (he’ll have an option in 2023), he’ll be almost 34, which is not exactly the age where guys break out. Furthermore, with outfield prospects such as Khalil Lee and Kyle Isbel waiting in the wings in the Royals system, it is unlikely that the Royals will keep Whit in center field beyond this year, when Lee and maybe Isbel will be ready for the show. If the Royals are not committed to keeping Whit long term, than the Royals should part with him sooner rather than later in order to help expedite the rebuilding process.
Furthermore, Whit’s value most likely will not get any higher. Whit was nearly a 3 win player a year ago, and two years ago he was a 5.2 WAR player, according to Fangraphs. Contending clubs want a player of Whit’s skill set who can hit for average, display some pop every once in a while, swipe a few bags, and play multiple positions. And considering his price tag, it wouldn’t be a huge burden for clubs either, especially for ones who are near or at the Luxury Tax (the Cubs especially). If Whit begins to regress or has a slow start, it could hurt the prospect package the Royals would receive. That cannot happen for a club that needs to continue to grow and build a farm system that ranked 26th in baseball, according to Fangraphs.
Thus, building the future for the Royals should be the most important thing for Moore and the Royals ownership group. Whit would bring back the most return in a trade by far, and thus, if the future is what’s most important, Whit has to be the collateral damage in a trade in order for the Royals to build and develop talent in their Minor League system.
What do the Royals do in 2020?
It seems unlikely that Moore will trade Merrifield this winter before Spring Training. If he was going to, he would have done it already. Thus, considering the Royals’ conservative approach this off-season, it seems almost like a done deal that Whit will be a Royal on Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium in 2020.
However, it will be interesting to follow Whit as the season progresses. If the Royals struggle in the standings, don’t be surprised to see the Whit trade talk get seriously hot. And if a contending team struggles out of the gate? Don’t be surprised to see Whit traded in a June deal, a month before the July Trade Deadline.
Overall, as a Royals fan, I understand that the Royals need to rebuild, especially in the minors. That’s why trading Whit doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. Whit would bring back a decent trade package, and if we learned anything from the Zack Greinke and James Shields deals in the past decade, Moore can certainly pick out solid prospect talent from other organizations in trades.
Of course, it won’t be a while until that happens…should it happen at all. And if Whit stays a Royal in 2020? That isn’t a bad thing either. After all, Whit brings people to the ballpark and he certainly makes fans of the blue and white proud on a regular basis. And who knows…maybe Whit in center will be the boost this club needs to make the right steps toward respectability in 2020.
It’ll be interesting to see though how many steps the Royals take toward that make next year. Because if it’s not enough…well…expect Boulevard Whit merchandise to be on clearance before the 2020 Mid-Summer Classic at Kansas Samplers and Charlie Hustle stores across the KC Metro.