One of the offseason’s earliest Cubs-related rumors – exploring a trade for Kansas City Royals infielder Whit Merrifield – wound up having no legs at all. Sure, we’d get teased by the interest of Team A or Team B in Merrifield every now and then as the winter went on (and that often included the Chicago Cubs), but rarely was that interest ever apparently reciprocated by the Royals.
Part of the problem, it seemed, was the Royals interest in hanging onto a “star” player, with whom their fans had already connected, even as they rebuilt and eyed contention in a year or two. Indeed, for smaller market clubs with rarer opportunities to roster star players (like Merrifield and the Royals), that consideration matters a little more. But I’d also bet Kansas City had trouble finding appropriate value on the trade market for a player who broke out so late into his career (age-29, last season), and whose value is so tied to what may have been an unsustainable BABIP (.352). Any acquiring team would have to decide if 2018 was a blip on the radar, or if Merrifield is one of those extremely rare, late-career breakout types (Tommy Pham, Jose Bautista, etc.). And with a huge free agent market and plenty of other trade options, well, I just bet the Royals weren’t getting what they thought was fair value.
So they took their ball and went home: Whit Merrifield is reportedly nearing a 4-year-deal with the Kansas City Royals, though it’s not expected to be announced for a few more days.
Interestingly, Merrifield didn’t wind up taking the Royals to the bank … at all. Even if you think the rest of his career will look a loot more like 2017 (105 wRC+, 2.9 WAR) than 2018 (120 wRC+, 5.2 WAR), a four-year contract worth a TOTAL of just $16.25M (plus $2M in performance bonuses) is nothing but affordable.
Then again, this isn’t really an “extension.” Merrifield was already under control for those four years – with arbitration beginning next season – but now both sides have some cost-control settled. I’m sure Merrifield was excited to lock down some life-changing money – and good for him! – but if you ask me, he sold himself way short. He’s just a year away from arbitration, where, if he had another season like he had in 2018, he could immediately start earning some serious cash. I’m guessing the uncertainty of not having a guaranteed contract weighed on him, especially with a year to go before even his first arbitration year. There’s nothing wrong with locking down some dollars, but, yeah, I think he probably could’ve made a lot more.
For what it’s worth, there’s a $12M(ish) option for the fifth year (a free agent year), but Merrifield will be 35 by then and a lot might’ve changed.
What does this do to the likelihood of a trade? Well, on the one hand, this sort of extremely affordable cost certainty might actually make Merrifield a much more attractive trade target. Before the deal, if you were the team trading for Merrifield, you had to prepare for the possibility that he’d keep producing, and, thus, get expensive through his arbitration years. But now, any team trading for Merrifield would know *exactly* how much he’ll cost, whether he remains an All-Star or not. But that also makes him more valuable to a team like the Royals than almost any other. [Brett: Sure, by the way, you’re taking on some risk now acquiring him – if he totally busts, you’re on the hook for the full $16 million, rather than just being able to dump him – but it’s such a small amount spread over four years that I’ve gotta believe this makes him more attractive overall.]
Perhaps more importantly, though, it’s usually seen as very bad practice to sign and/or extend a player and then immediately trade him. It’s not unheard of (and an arb deal like this is obviously different than a free agent deal and/or true extension), but it sets a bad precedent for the other players you want to extend.
In any case, a deal with the Cubs sure seems like it would’ve been squashed months ago anyway. So this is all academic.
Instead, the biggest Cubs-adjacent-impact of this deal is likely to be the extension for a pre-arbitration/arbitration position player. Player comparables are huge when trying to discern market rates, so any additional data point is useful. The problem here is that Merrifield’s situation is so unique that I’m not sure how much this comparable helps. Kris Bryant and Javy Baez are far younger, come with far more upside, and are more established in what they are. Addison Russell is a unique situation because of his injuries, underperformance, and suspension under the domestic violence policy. Kyle Schwarber has five years on Merrifield, but not any one season as good. The Cubs do have some pre-arb guys who fit the service time bill (Willson Contreras, Albert Almora, and Ian Happ), but they’re all a lot younger and Contreras’ position makes things even more complicated.
Unfortunately, there’s probably not a ton you can take away from this one, other than perhaps noting that he didn’t get a monster deal, which suggests the market for pre-arb and arb players is not rocketing northward at this time.