By now you have watched a few of Whit Merrifield’s games for the Kansas City Royals, and I’m sure you have heard the story about Whit’s father being one of the best hitters in the history of Wake Forest. If not that, you have seen his father’s minor league stats in comparison to Whit, but I thought I would give you a little background on Whit’s college and minor league career.
South Carolina and reaching College Baseball’s Pinnacle
When Whit arrived to Columbia in 2008, he joined a South Carolina squad that had been one of the best teams in the SEC. In fact, the Gamecocks amassed more wins from 2000 to 2004 than any team in the country, winning two SEC conference titles and one conference tournament title in that time. After enjoying super regional or further runs in seven of the previous eight seasons, the ’08 and ’09 squads underperformed, failing to reach the super regional in each season while finishing in the middle of the SEC field. The program would be changed for good in 2010, however, as Jackie Bradley, Merrifield and a host of others would push the Gamecocks to new heights with a national championship run that featured a rally through the losers bracket, a defeat over their most hated rival, Clemson, and a two game sweep in the finals. It marked the first national championship for a heralded program from the most challenging baseball conference in the nation. It was on that 2010 team that Whit had cemented himself as a future utility dynamo, playing all over the diamond for the eventual national champions and being one of its most productive hitters during the ’09 (3rd highest average) and ’10 seasons.
Pro Ball and the struggle
Things change in pro ball for most players as they go from winners and the best players on their teams to small pieces of a pro program. How they survive that and learn from that shapes whether they become major league players or decide they have futures in other industries. From 2010 to 2013 Merrifield hadn’t enjoyed much success at the lower minor league levels statistically or in the win column. A Royals club that had enjoyed so much minor league success in terms of winning was doing it at the levels above where Merrifield was playing, failing to make the playoffs in any of his first four seasons. Was he struggling to play for himself? Was he struggling with the losing that he hadn’t faced prior? Had he just not made the adjustments needed? Whatever the reason Merrifield had struggled in those seasons, failing to eclipse a .722 OPS during anytime in the minors up until 2013.
At age 25, Merrifield was staring the end of his baseball career in the eyes having struggled in his first four minor league seasons. Despite that lack of expectations and playing at the highest level of his career to date, Merrifield thrived, putting up a career high .829 OPS at Double-A NW Arkansas prior to a promotion after just 44 games there. The hitting wouldn’t stop at Triple-A as got on base in 38 out of 39 games from June 13 to July 28th for the Storm Chasers. That run would lead to a career high .340 average in his 76 games in Omaha that season and an overall .840 OPS across the two levels for the year. Not only was the hitting back for Merrifield but the winning was as well as the Storm Chasers went on to claim the PCL and Triple-A National Title for the ’14 season. Just a step away from the majors and one solid year of results suddenly had Merrifield primed for a shot at the bigs if he could just repeat things in 2015.
Good start and disappointment
An early spring injury nearly won Whit a job to start the 2015 season on the big league club as he was one of the last cuts heading into the year. That competition propelled him to another outstanding start, jumping out of the gate in April to a .844 OPS as things continued to boom for the utility player. Then, it happened. An injury to Alex Gordon appeared to give Whit a call up to the big leagues. On the night of the injury, teammates hugged Whit in the dugout and everything on the surface gave the look of a player going up the major leagues. We talked to Whit, and he was getting congratulation text via phone as people reacted to him getting pulled from the game but the call didn’t come. It didn’t happen later in the night and it never came that season as we know. Instead the Royals made a deal for super-utility Ben Zobrist who became one of the keys to the Royals World Series run. While this was happening, Whit let his season get away from him, hitting just .223/.267/.309 from July 10th until the end of the season.
New Ideas and a Last Chance with the Royals
Those who watch spring training saw a little more power out of Whit Merrifield during the spring training season. The infielder talked about how he changed his eating program and added more muscle in an attempt to hit more home runs at the minor league levels and hopefully getting a shot with the big league club. It was likely his final audition for Kansas City with his minor league free agency coming after the season. Again, he was one of the final cuts off the club as he saw that body transformation bring the results he was looking for, clubbing five home runs in his first 36 games this year after eight home runs in his previous 211 Triple-A games. Then it happened again. An injury opened the door and Whit got the call to the majors.
What to Expect
What should we expect as fans? I wouldn’t get too excited about seeing an All-Star 2nd baseman in Merrifield, but you will see a spray hitter who will look to use the entire field to collect hits. Since his draft, I’ve said that his skillset is of better use in the National League where he could provide a utility option in the outfield, second or third base and be used as a double switch weapon. On this team currently, Whit can be used in the outfield or second base as well as providing a late inning pinch runner in games he didn’t start. That is a useful player and while he is off to a good start, I think long term you are looking at a guy who could provide a .260/.340/.380 slash line with plenty of hustle and professional at bats. The outfield is likely his best defensive spot but he can play second and in the short term he won’t kill you there, likely playing it at a similar level to what we have seen from Omar Infante this year, although Merrifield provides a better arm. All in all, he’s a guy who is a perfect fit for his current role and you may be surprised to see still in the big leagues some six or more years from now.
Feature Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports