There was a rumor earlier this offseason that the Cubs might make trading for Whit Merrifield a “priority,” but even if it’s true, the Royals would have to actually engage in those trade talks to make anything happen.
And the signal they’re putting out is that they aren’t there right now:
There’s been a lot of trade inquiries on Whit Merrifield but sources say the Royals are not considering trading him now. Could become a more realistic option at the trade deadline.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 13, 2019
Translation? The Royals probably don’t have very realistic demands for Merrifield in a trade right now. That’s fine. He’s signed to a multi-year deal, he’s one of the few familiar faces on the club, and teams don’t have to trade away every valuable piece just because there are askers.
The Royals are highly unlikely to be competitive in 2020, so the advantage of hanging onto Merrifield now is a gamble that he’ll be more valuable with the pressure of the deadline (and a smaller market), versus the much larger market now (but competing with free agency). It’s also a gamble that a 31-year-old Merrifield won’t get hurt or take another sizable step back.
Ah, Whit Merrifield. The Great Whit Whale. He’s back for another round of trade rumors.
You understand why. The now 30-year-old second baseman has put together back-to-back seasons of solid leadoff work, and he’s a career .296/.344/.445 hitter (109 wRC+) who doesn’t strike out (16.6%), and runs the bases well. Given what the Cubs have been desperate to find at the top of their order, Merrifield has *obviously* been a trade rumor target for over a year now.
There are rubs, though, even if the Cubs were making him a priority.
For one, there’s the age. Although Merrifield is nicely cost-controlled – he signed a four-year, $16.25 million deal before the 2019 season – he will play next season at age 31. For a guy with speed, you always worry about decline in athleticism after 30. Indeed, Merrifield’s baserunning and defensive metrics were down considerably in 2019 over 2018.
For another thing, there’s his offensive profile. His line and OBP look great, but they are built almost entirely only a BABIP that is in the .350s. To be sure, Merrifield is a great line drive hitter with enough pop to keep defenses honest, but if that BABIP takes a hit at any point, his whole line crumbles because he doesn’t have huge power (.149 ISO) and doesn’t walk much (6.4%). Guys who are primarily BABIP monsters – even if they’ve been consistent at it in the past – make me nervous.
Steamer projects a .282/.337/.426 line next year for Merrifield, just below league average (99 wRC). The OBP would be a decent bit above league average (.323), and he’d still do other stuff you’d be happy to have atop the order. But the point is, he’s hardly a lock to be an overall above-average hitter.
Would you still gladly take Merrifield as your leadoff hitter and Opening Day second baseman in 2020? Of course! His salary doesn’t hurt, as it might allow the Cubs to make more impactful additions in the rotation and in the bullpen, too.
But when it comes to the price tag in trade, how much are you giving up for a 31-year-old Merrifield, knowing that the upside is limited to him being what he’s been the last two years (average defender, solid hitter, good leadoff guy)? And knowing that the downside is that his BABIP slips just 20 points and he’s suddenly a merely average hitter atop your lineup? Are you giving up Nico Hoerner for that? I don’t think I am, and that’s likely where the Royals would start their ask.