Right now, even after a two-game sweep of the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers on the road, there are two main stories circulating among Royals fan circles on this off-day before the Royals begin a weekend series at Kauffman Stadium against the suddenly surging Detroit Tigers:
- The promotions of Bobby Witt, Jr. and Nick Pratto to Triple-A Omaha.
- The trade rumors circulating around Whit Merrifield, who may be the Royals’ most valuable trade asset, especially in the wake of Danny Duffy heading to the 10-Day IL once again.
At the surface level, some Royals fans may think those are two separate items. After all, Witt and Pratto are the future of the Kansas City Royals who play different positions than Whit, who is not only a two-time All-Star, but also one of the faces of this Royals franchise (along with Salvador Perez). However, Witt and Pratto’s meteoric rise up the Royals farm system this year should make this Royals franchise re-examine Whit’s future in Kansas City.
Because if general manager Dayton Moore dives deeper into their current roster situation, with Witt and Pratto knocking on the door in Kansas City, it may be the perfect time to finally trade Whit.
When it comes to Witt and Pratto, their promotions to Omaha coming before the beginning of August is a sign that their arrival in Kansas City could possibly come in September of 2021, which is crazy to think if Royals fans look back two seasons ago.
Back in 2019, Witt had just been drafted out of high school, and Pratto was coming off a lousy year at the plate in High-A Wilmington. Two seasons later in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, Pratto has hit 15 home runs and posted a 158 wRC+ in 275 plate appearances, while Witt has hit 16 home runs and posted a 147 wRC+ in 279 plate appearances. Therefore, the call ups to Omaha were not only justified statistically, but also welcomed by a Royals fanbase that has grown frustrated after the season has taken a turn for the worse at the Major League level.
And so far, Witt and Pratto are continuing their stellar play at the Triple-A level, as evidenced in their opening series games against the St. Paul Saints, the Triple-A affiliate of division rival Minnesota.
Already, Pratto has shown some ability to handle not only Triple-A pitching, but even MLB-caliber pitching in his short tenure in Omaha. Pratto faced off against Nick Vincent, who has pitched nearly 400 innings at the MLB level since debuting in 2012. Take a look at Pratto nearly tying the game against the Saints with one swing:
However, while Pratto has been solid in the opening series against St. Paul, Witt has been the real head-turner, as he has demonstrated all five-tools with the Storm Chasers in just two games. One particular play that pretty much incapsulated the “Bobby Witt, Jr. Experience” was his inside-the-park home run in his second game as a Storm Chaser:
It’s only a couple of games, and Witt and Pratto will have ample time in Triple-A to undergo the ups and downs of Minor League Baseball’s highest level. That being said, they are already making noise early in their Omaha tenures, and if Northwest Arkansas is an indicator for both of them, they should be in good shape to challenge for roster spots in Kansas City in September. Furthermore, it’s not just Royals fans buying the hype on Witt and Pratto, but even the national media is slowly believing that these two can be the long-term future of Kansas City, perhaps akin to Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer back in the early 2010’s.
On Thursday, it was surprising to see the Athletic prospect expert Keith Law not only rank Witt so high in his Top-50, but also include Pratto in his Top-50 as well, which would have been unthinkable back in 2020.
Therefore, the Royal debuts of Witt and Pratto may be starting as early as September, and if that’s the case, the Royals will have some interesting roster decisions to make in Spring Training in 2022.
And trading Whit Merrifield by the July Trade Deadline could be a way to make the roster decisions easier and more sensible for Moore this off-season.
There is no question that trading Whit is not an easy decision for Moore and the Royals. Whit is, after all, one of the biggest sports icons in Kansas City at the moment, behind only Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Salvador Perez. Whit is fondly known at “two-hit Whit” and has a Price Chopper Pepsi special in honor of him whenever he garners two or more hits in a game. In a sports market where stars are rare, it is nice to see a homegrown player like Whit succeed with the Royals, especially as the franchise as a whole has struggled to be competitive in the post-Ewing Kauffman era. Whit genuinely enjoys being in Kansas City, and that cannot be taken for granted, especially after past possible “stars” have often opted out for bigger markets and more lucrative pastures (i.e. Johnny Damon and Zack Greinke particularly come to mind).
That being said, this year has proven that the Royals are probably not at the “2013-level” that the organization, and some overly optimistic fans, were hoping for at the beginning of the season.
This is a Royals team, who in the Moore-era context of things, is probably somewhere in the 2011 or 2012-level of the “Process 2.0”. That is frustrating for Royals fans who are tired of the losing, especially in the midst of such success being experienced by the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL and Sporting KC of the MLS. That being said, baseball is a different animal for small market clubs, and the reality is this: the Royals may be a couple of years away from being real “players” in the division again. And this is not just the opinion of myself or more realistic Royals fans, but even around baseball circles as well (who seem to be encouraging a trade).
Hence, paving the way at the Major League level for young players with long-term value and control will be critical for Moore. And with Witt and Pratto so close to Kansas City, it will be important for them to have an opportunity to contribute everyday with the Royals at some point in 2022.
Unfortunately, the presence of Whit in 2022 only makes things more complicated, and not just those two, but many of the Royals’ young core as a whole.
Let’s take a look at some Royals position players on the active roster who most likely will be key for the club in the next 2-4 years, and how they have done this season on a wRC+ and fWAR basis (Whit will also be added in the comparison). In addition to adding their stat lines, I will also include their ages, to give some context about their long-term potential.
- Whit Merrifield: 96 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR, 32-years-old
- Hunter Dozier: 71 wRC+, -0.2 fWAR, 29-years-old
- Adalberto Mondesi: 223 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR, 25-years-old (only 10 games played)
- Salvador Perez: 114 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR, 31-years-old
- Nicky Lopez: 96 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR, 26-years-old
On a payroll end, Dozier and Perez signed extensions this off-season and will be under team control until 2024 and 2025, respectively (they both have club options which could extend it an additional year for both). Mondesi will hit his second year of arbitration next season, and will not be a free agent until after the 2024 campaign. Even though he has struggled to stay healthy this year, when on the field, no one has been more dynamic than him both offensively and defensively.
Lopez has been a sterling surprise in 2021, as he overcame to sub-par seasons in 2019 and 2020, only to become one of the Royals’ most dependable two-way players not named Whit or Salvy. He will begin arbitration next off-season, and won’t be a free agent until 2026.
The fact of the matter is this: the Royals have options to navigate things offensively and defensively should Whit get traded. And considering that Whit will be eligible for a club option of $6.5 million after next season (he currently makes $6.75 million this year), he could be 34 or 35 when it is time for his next extension. While Whit has certainly been a late-blooming prospect of sorts, it is unlikely that he will have a whole lot of value at that age-range, and without a “true” position defensively, Royals fans have to wonder if “cashing out” now on his value may be the wisest move from a roster standpoint.
Because right now, having Witt, Jr. at third, a “healthy” Mondesi at shortstop, Nicky at second, and Dozier in right field could be the seeds of a really good top of the Royals lineup in 2022 and beyond. Add Pratto in the mix at first base and Santana to DH (he has a year and a club option left on his current deal), and that doesn’t leave a whole lot of spots for Whit. Yes, center field could be open, but I am not sure if Whit can handle what it takes defensively to be average at that position, and Benintendi is better off in left, where he has looked pretty decent in the wake of Alex Gordon’s retirement.
Thus, when looking at things from a future perspective, trading Whit makes a whole lot of sense for the Royals. The Royals get to add some more assets to their farm system, and Whit goes to a contender where his multi-dimensional talents can be utilized better. If he doesn’t leave now, he risks having a legacy like Mike Sweeney, a Royals star on bad teams who was beloved in Kansas City, but probably stayed a bit too long, and thus, missed out on possibilities to experience the postseason in his prime.
If the Royals were to trade Whit, what should Royals fans expect? That will be tough to say. Shaun Newkirk of Royals Review threw out some pretty interesting possibilities, using Fangraphs’ “future value” calculator for prospects:
Honestly, that would be a pretty decent haul, even if it may not result in any “high-end” prospects. There are some in Royals and baseball circles that think that Whit could pull in a high-upside prospect like Vidal Brujan of the Rays, who is the Rays’ No. 2 prospect in their system behind Wander Franco. While that would be the ideal, after seeing the return in the Rays-Twins Nelson Cruz trade, I am not sure if the Rays, who understand the value of their assets really well, will part with Brujan for just Whit. There would have to be a couple of others thrown into the mix (like Scott Barlow for example) for the Royals to net a prospect like Brujan:
Of course, a lot will depend on Moore and what he’s willing to part with. In the past couple of summers, Whit has always been a hot topic around the Trade Deadline. And yet, Whit fails to leave Kansas City, as the word on the street is that Moore and the Royals simply value him too highly, and expect just too much of a return. Jon Heyman seemed to confirm this in a Tweet today:
Moore and the Royals though need to really re-examine their desire to keep Whit around for much longer if they want to be set up for success in the long-term. Yes, he’s a fan favorite and has represented the Royals well, which isn’t easy to do in fervent small market like Kansas City, which has often been jaded with the Royals sans those 2014-2017 seasons. Whit has helped bring older fans to Kauffman and helped build new younger ones as well.
But the fact of the matter is this: the Royals need to keep an eye on the future, and at Whit’s age, it is unlikely that he will add much to what they will be doing, especially with how crowded the infield will be as soon as 2022.
I am not saying that the Royals should give Whit up for anything, but Moore needs to find a deal that works for Whit, the trading team, and most importantly, the Royals and their future plans. They should not pass up on a deal because they think they can be “contenders” in 2022.
The Royals proved in 2021 that the “Process 2.0” is still in development, and is a couple of years away, at the least, from reaching that “2014-esque peak”. They wouldn’t be in last place in the Central if this second rebuild was at its apex.
Most realistic Royals fans know that. Most baseball fans who look at the Royals think that.
Now, Moore and the Royals need to accept that.
Royals fans will know that Moore has embraced that fact when he trades Whit at the deadline. That will open things up for Witt, Jr. and Pratto’s possible debuts in September as well as opportunities to compete for regular starting roles in Spring Training next year.
I guess Royals nation has a week or so to see…
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports