If the Cubs are looking for versatile players capable of playing in the middle infield and outfield, while also looking for an offensive impact in a lineup that theoretically has a lot of middle-of-the-order power (if it bounces back), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect addition than the 2018 version of the Royals’ Whit Merrifield.
So, then, a rumor like this sounds about right:
Have #Cubs reached their Whit's end in search for a lead-off hitter? Merrifield would be a quality fit for them on the trade market, writes @MLBBruceLevine https://t.co/5AwS0agDV5 pic.twitter.com/cMLG60oMkx
— 670 The Score (@670TheScore) November 9, 2018
As Levine writes, there’s a clear fit here for the Cubs (more on that in a moment), though the cost would necessarily involve quality young players as the Royals rebuild. The names Levine mentions, specifically? Addison Russell plus a piece like Ian Happ or Carl Edwards Jr.
To be sure, the Cubs would seemingly be all too happy to deal Russell for real value like Merrifield (and perhaps the Royals would be the right organization to try to reclaim and rehabilitate Russell), but I would argue there is an enormous difference between the value of Happ and Edwards. Heck, I think Happ probably has more trade value than Russell at this point. Maybe even considerably more.
Setting that aside, yes, there is some combination of young Cubs that could make sense in this trade, and yes, I could see Happ making sense for a rebuilding Royals club (he’s much younger than Merrifield, and a little further from arbitration). Edwards, who is in his first of four arbitration years this season, makes less sense to me for the Royals. Russell, who is in his second of four arbitration years doesn’t really make sense for a rebuilding Royals club unless they are expecting a very short turnaround (competitive in 2020?) and are desperate for an elite defensive shortstop. Possible, I suppose.
Let’s leave that side of things for a bit, because again, I can see a trade fit for the two sides in some way, even if not precisely via these three players.
Let’s talk about the Royals’ willingness to move a pre-arbitration guy who just put up a 5+ WAR season. Seems a bit crazy on its face, right?
As of the Trade Deadline, at least, the Royals had no interest in trading Merrifield. What’s changed since then? Well, maybe nothing! Everything you hear about Merrifield this offseason may simply be wishcasting.
But, it’s also possible that a guy who will play next season at age 30, and who will thereafter go into his arbitration years (while theoretically in physical decline), is not a guy the Royals want to ride out past his peak trade value.
Consider the case from the Royals’ perspective: yes, it’d be nice to have a cheap guy like Merrifield on a competitive team, but what if they’re not going to be competitive for a few more years? Then you’re talking about a guy who broke out with a monster year at age 29 (.304/.367/.438, 120 wRC+, 45 steals, good defense, 5.2 WAR), with little track record or pedigree to support that kind of performance.
Moreover, much of his offensive production was predicated on a .352 BABIP (12th highest in baseball) despite a 36.9% hard contact rate, which ranked 78th. Steamer projects Merrifield to be a .274/.329/.405 hitter next year, with a 99 wRC+. A 2.7-win player when you account for defense and baserunning – nice guy to have – but far from an impact bat at the top of the order. A full 67 hitters are projected to produce more WAR next year.
Maybe you think he is a late-bloomer who will outperform that projection considerably. Or maybe not. That’s the risk the Royals run by hanging onto him past this moment.
It is completely not crazy that the Royals would want to cash in on that guy right now.
Of course, for all the same reasons, you have to make sure not to just see “leadoff hitter, .367 OBP, 45 steals, good defense at second base” and start screaming TRADE WHATEVER THEY WANT.
I’m intrigued. I’m interested. Merrifield is a very good fit for the Cubs, even if you bake in some regression. But he’s not a guy I would necessarily look to trade AGGRESSIVELY to acquire. The pre-arb salary in 2019 will surely be very attractive to the Cubs, as well as Merrifield’s versatility.