This winter, I’ve been mentally separating the Cubs-related rumors/speculation/analysis into two distinct buckets.
Bucket A: Includes everything we thought the Cubs were going to do before the offseason began, like becoming heavily involved in the upper-most tier of free agent targets like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. And …
Bucket B: Everything since – i.e. the Cubs might be a little tied up financially this offseason, so their moves will have to be creative, at best, or non-existent (at least, in free agency), at worst.
But one item, in particular, has revealed the grey-area in between my otherwise rock-solid buckets: a trade for Whit Merrifield.
In case you missed the rumors over the weekend, Bruce Levine paired the Cubs and Royals together, suggesting a player like Merrifield could be the perfect answer to a number of the Cubs’ questions (leadoff hitter, second baseman, versatile position player capable of covering shortstop in Addison Russell’s absence), while the Cubs could part with the sort of young, big league, upside-and-team-control-remaining talent a team like the Royals could want (some combination of Russell, Ian Happ, and/or Carl Edwards Jr.), at least over a guy who is about to hit his 30s.
And frankly, I can actually see the bones of something real there. Russell might be as available as any player in baseball for obvious reasons, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still offer to other teams Gold Glove defense at shortstop and a fairly high ceiling at the plate. Ian Happ, meanwhile, is a fast, switch-hitting, versatile, young, cheap, power-hitting, likeable …. wait a minute, I don’t think I want to trade him … and Carl Edwards Jr. has been, at times, one of the more dominant bullpen arms in the game. If losing any two of those guys seems like it would be a tough pill to swallow, that’s because it would be, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be fair to consider. After all, Merrifield was very good last year.
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 why do I bring this up today? Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star writes about the Royals’ apparent reluctance to trade Merrifield this winter, but I think it comes with a great deal of fog covering some otherwise obvious motivations.
To begin, Mellinger reminds folks that Merrifield led MLB in hits and steals while playing five different defensive positions last season, noting that he also has four years of relatively cheap club control remaining and would be the perfect addition to most contenders: “He is productive, cheap, versatile, athletic, and could instantly fit toward the top of a championship club’s order.”
Mellinger concedes that the Royals’ own internal evaluations suggest that the core of their next contending team won’t hit the big leagues until 2021, when Merrifield will be 32 and will have only two years remaining.
And if I might add to Mellinger’s point: Yes, Merrifield was great last year, but that was his first truly great season in the big leagues and it came at age 29. Sure, some players break out late into their careers, but it’s rare and even when it does happen, that doesn’t mean it’ll last. Point being, aside from the obvious (he’ll never be younger, he’ll never have more years of cheap team control), Merrifield’s trade value might never be higher than it is right now based solely on the fact that he’s coming off a monster year (which was, itself, a surprise breakout late into a player’s career).
Also, as Brett noted:
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.
So it’s a no-brainer right? The Royals should trade an older, breakout star before he loses value in age, contract status, and overall effectiveness, especially as the Royals, themselves, admit that they do not expect to contend over the next two years … right? Eh, not so fast.
Mellinger explains that (1) finding the right trade partner won’t be an easy task, though he does list the Braves, Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers (no Cubs) as potential suitors, (2) the Royals “don’t want to go backwards,” and (3) the Royals don’t yet know what pieces will fit in the future.
Hopefully, I don’t need to remind you that at this time of the year, there can be a lot of misinformation out there, but I will. I’m not saying – in any way – this isn’t something Mellinger hasn’t heard directly from a very excellent source within the Royals organization, but to say this isn’t a fairly obvious attempt at a leverage grab wouldn’t be right either. I mean, after all, those reasons sound right but they’re also full of holes, some of which were pointed out by Mellinger earlier in his very article.
Without getting too deeply into the speculative weeds, I’ll just say this: I’m willing to bet that Merrifield’s value will never be higher than it is right now (except MAYBE at this upcoming trade deadline), and the Royals are pretty clearly rebuilding. I know some external factors – like selling one of their best, most popular players the year before they try to sign a new TV deal – might not seem like the best move, but frankly, it is. And of course this: “Even if the return in a trade might be a little higher right now, it won’t matter if the pieces don’t fit together” just doesn’t track logically. In my opinion, you always take the best available talent, not the best “roster fit”, and make it all work later.
In other words, if I were a Royals fan, if the club isn’t going to try to compete in 2019, I’d be pushing to get a deal done this winter. Or, heck, even if the Royals wanted to try to rebuild and compete at the same time, maybe they would be overall improved by adding guys like Russell and Edwards than by hanging onto Merrifield.
SO, the way I see it, the news today isn’t really the Royals are considering holding onto Merrifield, but rather: the Royals know they have to trade Merrifield and have begun the full court press on increasing their leverage through the press. Moreover, I suppose the Cubs, if they are truly interested in securing his services, will likely have to compete with a good many other suitors.
And thankfully, despite some obvious risk, the addition of Merrifield would actually be an exciting turn in the Cubs’ offseason plans. Perhaps it would fall short of signing Bryce Harper, but it would certainly land somewhere above the low-expectations of Bucket B.