Whit Merrifield is a legitimately good baseball player. That fact was debated for awhile, but the only people debating that today are those who argue for the sake of arguing. That he is good has been a really nice development for the Royals, one they should probably take advantage of in an effort to expedite their rebuild. The thought process behind that is that he’s entering his age-30 season and seems more likely to have peaked in 2017 and 2018 and might have another peak year or two in him before the decline starts, and at that point, the Royals won’t yet be competitive.
Before I go on, I want to hedge a bet and couch my statement and sit on a fence and do everything that allows me to wriggle away from this opinion if pressed too hard. Okay, maybe it’s not that as much as player comparisons are tricky and just because I’m about to compare Whit to a player we actually know quite well doesn’t mean he’ll follow that career path. I really just thought the comparison was kind of interesting. Let’s take a look and then I’ll get into it.
So it’s obviously not a perfect comparison, but you see a similar progression. And just for fun, check out how both players fared in AAA at the age of 25:
Again, these players aren’t necessarily all that similar, but they’ve had a somewhat similar progression to get where they are today. By this point, you’ve probably realized that Player X is former Royals great, Lorenzo Cain. And at this point, you also probably know that Whit Merrifield changed his training regimen and became a bit of a different player after being passed over for a promotion during the 2015 season after Alex Gordon got hurt.
I’m not here to say that Whit Merrifield will age just like Lorenzo Cain, but it’s worth noting that in the following three seasons from his age-29 season, Cain hit .299/.368/.424 with his typically stellar defense. Upon his move to the Brewers, his walk numbers kicked up with a rate above 11 percent and his strikeout rate continued to impress. Athleticism tends to age pretty well, and Merrifield is a lot closer to the caliber athlete of Cain than many probably realize.
And while Cain has higher value, as you can see from his 11.1 WARP from his age-27 though age-29 season (and that’s 4.3 WARP/600 PA for him in that time) compared to Whit’s 7.9 WARP (2.8/600 PA), I think at least some of that gap can be bridged with Merrifield’s versatility. While Cain is an outstanding defender in center field, and maybe even better than that, Merrifield can handle second base and all three outfield positions well. I think we might even find out in the next few months how well he can handle third base as that seems to be an option for his near future.
You might be wondering if I have a point here, and the answer is that I don’t really. I was thinking that I bet Merrifield and Cain had pretty similar big league career paths, and so far, they do. Also, looking at the comparison made me think about just how athletic Merrifield is and while second basemen don’t tend to age well, I’m not sure classifying him as a second baseman only is really fair to him. He’s more of an athlete who happens to be playing second base. Maybe that’s looking through Royal Blue glasses, but I think there’s a distinction there.
I think it’s fair to make a bit of an assumption and say that Merrifield will be a productive player for the next year or two and maybe even all the way through his arbitration years. The only projection system currently released, Steamer, has Merrifield projected to hit .275/.329/.405. Prior to the season, PECOTA projected him to hit .254/.304/.393 in 2019, but that was before he followed up his breakout season with another very good season. I’d take the big time over on PECOTA and a general over on the current Steamer projection as well.
I do believe trading Merrifield is ultimately what’s best for the team in the long run, but I don’t think it necessarily has to be done tomorrow or even before the season. If the right offer comes, sure, pull the trigger, but I believe Merrifield has a good chance to be more like Cain and give a few more solid years. If the right offer doesn’t come right now, I don’t belief the risk is all that significant to wait.