Will the Royals Keep Whit Merrifield Around After 2022?

Today is a big one for Whit Merrifield, the Royals’ biggest “franchise” player currently on the roster, beyond Salvador Perez. The two-time All-Star turned 33-years-old on Monday, which was celebrated by his agency team on Twitter:

A 9th round pick by the Royals in the 2010 draft out of the University of South Carolina, Whit is definitely one of the biggest Royals Player Development success stories in the past decade.

Though he didn’t wow many front offices and scouts with his tools going into the 2010 MLB Draft (hence, his 9th round status), Whit has been one of the most dependable Royals players over the past decade since debuting as a 27-year-old.

Since his rookie season in 2016 (in which he played 81 games), Merrifield has not only accumulated the most games and plate appearances of any Royals position player from 2016-2021, but he has also produced the highest total fWAR, as evidenced in the table below:

As Royals fans can see in the data above, Whit’s fWAR (16.8) is over double of Salvy’s mark, who ranks No. 2 in fWAR of any Royals player since 2010. Thus, while Whit may not have the “big” personality or “home run” prowess of the Royals’ franchise catcher, Whit has been more valuable to the Royals over the past decade, especially when examined metrically on an offensive and defensive end.

And thus, Dayton Moore and the Royals front office have a dilemma they could be dealing with as soon as the lockout is over: what do they do with Whit in the long-term, especially with him in his mid-30’s and his contract only containing a club option for 2023?

Do they give him an extension before that crucial year, much like Salvy prior to the 2021 season?

Or will the Royals let him walk in free agency after 2022 or 2023 (after exercising his club option), perhaps not seeing a long-term future for him in Kansas City after he turns 34 on this day a year from now?

There are certainly pluses and minuses for the Royals when it comes to giving Whit a long-term extension.

For one, Whit has been a model of dependency on the field throughout his career in Kansas City.

Merrfield hasn’t missed a game since 2019, and even in 2018, he played in 158 out of a total 162 games. In addition to being the Royals’ “iron man” the past four seasons, Whit has generated a 12.5 fWAR since 2018, and is averaging a 106.5 wRC+ over that time frame as well.

Yes, Whit’s age is a concern, especially as players tend to regress in their mid-30’s, not get better. However, much like Alex Gordon, Whit has done a phenomenal job in terms of staying in shape, and that is evidenced not just in “consecutive games played” streak, but also in his stolen base numbers and sprint speed metrics.

Since 2018, the former South Carolina Gamecock has stolen 117 bases, and has posted two seasons in which he has stolen 40 or more bases, which included 2018 (45) and last season (40).

However, while he did steal more bases in 2018, his efficiency was even better in 2021, as he stole 40 bases on 44 attempts (91 percent) in comparison to 45 in 55 attempts in 2018 (82 percent). Additionally, Whit stole 33 bases in a row last season, which tied Carlos Beltran’s franchise record for the most consecutive stolen bases without being caught.

While his instincts on the bases have gotten sharper as he has gotten older, Whit still continues to demonstrate superior sprint speed, as he ranked in the 87th percentile in the category, according to Baseball Savant.

Furthermore, Whit continues to be one of the best runners in the game at his age, which is further demonstrated in the Statcast running metrics in the table below:

Notice how Whit has ranked No. 1 at his age for two consecutive seasons, and ranked No. 2 back in 2019. While he doesn’t get enough credit among baseball fan circles, Whit is a phenomenal athlete, and that is a good sign that if the Royals give him an extension in the next year or two, he’ll continue to be of value toward the end of the deal, however long it should be.

While Royals fans should be encouraged by his running and defensive metrics (he ranked in the 92nd percentile in Outs Above Average last year, according to Savant), his batted ball metrics present a riskier projection in the long term.

Last season, Whit posted a barrel rate of 3.5 percent, his lowest rate since his rookie season in 2016 (2.9 percent). Correspondingly, many of Whit’s advanced batting metrics also suffered in 2021. He posted a career-low in terms of batting average (.277), his wRC+ was tied for the lowest mark in his career (91, also the number in his rookie season), and his .117 ISO was also the lowest number for him since 2016.

Case in point, after hitting nine home runs in 265 plate appearances in 2020 during the shortened season, Whit only hit 10 home runs in 720 plate appearances last season. While Whit will never be a “20 homer” threat (as was the hope back in 2017 when he hit 19 home runs), the fact that his power regressed so much this past season was a bit disappointing, especially considering power as a tool tends to “mature” as a player gets older, not regress.

To make matters worse, Merrifield’s plate discipline also saw some concerning trends last season, especially in regard to strikeout and chase rate.

While Whit’s 0.39 BB/K ratio was his highest ratio since 2018 (it was 0.36 in both 2019 and 2020), his K rate jumped from 12.5 percent in 2020 to 14.3 percent in 2021. He also saw ticks in chase rate (28 percent in 2020 to 29 percent in 2021) and whiff percentage (16.1 percent in 2020 to 18.1 percent in 2021).

Now, this isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world.

The Royals have plenty of hitters in the lineup who chase and whiff more than Whit (Salvy being a prime example). But for a leadoff hitter, the over-aggressive approach, and slight regression in plate discipline last season, is concerning, especially since he doesn’t have the power to make up for it.

Here’s an example of Whit’s overly-ancy approach hurting him at the plate, as he strikes out in his last plate appearance of 2021 on a Jorge Alcala fastball that is WAY out of the strike zone:

If Whit is hitting in the middle of the lineup and has power potential, those kinds of swings can be more than forgivable. However, considering Whit’s strongest characteristic is his speed on the basepaths, he needs to reign things in if he wants to be the Royals’ leadoff man in the long-term.

His ability to make contact at a high rate (career 83.2 percent contact rate) is admirable and much-needed for a team that has employed a lot of high-whiff hitters in the batting order (Salvy; Dozier; Mondesi; Soler, etc.). However, it hasn’t produced much on an average exit velocity end, as he has remained around league average in that category through his career, as evidenced by this rolling chart via Savant:

Now, will Whit suddenly be a “patient” hitter who will be producing a BB/K ratio over 0.50 as soon as next season? Of course not. He is 33-years-old after all.

That being said, it will be interesting to see if Whit will be swinging a little less in 2022 in order to not only improve his ability to get on base (.317 last year a career low), but also solidify his position as the Royals’ leadoff hitter for 2022 and beyond.

If the Royals choose to give Whit a long-term deal, what could it look like?

That is hard to say, but my guess is that it would be in the 4-5 year range with a club option for another year, much like the extension he signed in January of 2019.

The only difference is that this deal would be worth a whole lot more.

In his last extension, he earned an AAV (average annual value) of around $4.06 million. If Moore wanted to keep Whit in Kansas City beyond the conclusion of his current deal, my guess is that it would need to be a deal in the $15-20 million AAV range.

According to Fangraphs’ value metrics, Whit has been worth $134.8 million on a “WAR-to-Dollars” amount since 2016 (including a $26 million mark last year), so a $75-80 million deal over 4-5 years seems reasonable and fair compensation for the “value” the Royals have gotten over Whit’s first extension.

That being said, any future deal should be for the player that Whit “will be” not what he “once was”.

The Royals learned that the hard way with Gordo, who never quite lived up to the four-year, $72 million extension he signed in January of 2016, fresh off their World Series title.

I know Moore and the Royals want to avoid making the same mistake twice, and as hard as it would be to part ways with Whit, the Kansas City front office has to think about the long-term financial health of the franchise, especially with so many young players who will need extensions in the next three-to-five seasons (including perhaps Bobby Witt, Jr).

Furthermore, there is already a crowded infield with Nicky Lopez emerging last year, and Adalberto Mondesi in need of a position, even though he hasn’t been the most dependable health-wise. While Whit can play the outfield, his best position defensively has been second base, and the Royals may look to build around an infield of Witt, Nicky, and Mondesi long-term, which could make Whit the odd-man out in the process (and thus hurt the chance of an extension).

Whit will have at least one more season in Kansas City to show that he is worth keeping in Kansas City long-term. He’s already a likable figure among Kansas City sports fan circles, which was on full display in Monday’s interview with Chris Rose of MLB Network:

But it will be interesting to see how Whit performs in 2022…

And if he will be in Kansas City in 2023 or 2024.

Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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