Ah. This. Back again. Whit “Brian Roberts” Merrifield. (Who gets that reference?)
So, the necessary preambles to any Whit Merrifield trade discussion include mention of a price tag that has long been rumored to be completely dissonant with Merrifield’s actual projected value going forward, and at 31 in January, he has already started to shown signs of decline. In other words, it remains very hard for me to see (1) a trade that the Royals would accept (2) actually looking good for the Cubs.
That out of the way, Jon Morosi reports that the Cubs are showing “continued interest” in trading for Merrifield, presumably even in spite of my preambles there, which suggests not only that the Cubs still really, really like Merrifield, but also feel like the Royals, for all their protestations, are willing to trade Merrifield in a reasonable deal.
Earlier this month, Mark Gonzales reported that Merrifield was a “priority” target for the Cubs this offseason, which is not at all surprising given the organization’s desire to diversify the types of bats in their lineup, the need for a leadoff hitter, and the starting job available at second base. Merrifield was a rumored Cubs trade target at this time last year, then again at the deadline, and now again here this offseason.
The desirability of having Merrifield on this iteration of the Cubs is obvious. I won’t dispute it. Although he’ll be 31, he’s a guy who is athletic, has a great health track record, was a late bloomer, hits for high contact with enough power and line drive ability to keep the BABIP high, and he’s scheduled to make just $13.5 million total over the next three years (plus a $10.5 million team option for 2023). He’s primarily a second baseman – and an average to slightly-above-average one, by the ratings – but he can also play all over the outfield. In many ways, the Cubs might be viewing Merrifield less as their new starting second baseman/leadoff man, and more as a Ben-Zobrist-replacement, who *can* start at second and lead off, but who can also just be a good player you want to have overall.
You could see the Cubs bringing in Merrifield and signing Shogo Akiyama, and on those two moves alone, the composition of their lineup changes pretty dramatically for 2020.
I would be happy for the Cubs to have Merrifield, and I understand their interest. I feel like I have to say that again, because what follows is something I’ve popped into several of these posts now, and it all stands: I have concerns about the price tag in trade relative to the actual performance you might get from Merrifield going forward.
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.
If the Royals are realistic about Merrifield’s value, and if they recognize their rebuilding situation will likely far outstrip Merrifield’s best years in his early 30s, they could get a really nice return for him right now (from the Cubs or another club).
I don’t think they should expect to get a guy like Hoerner in the deal, but I also don’t think they’d be crazy to make that ask. Maybe I’m being a prospect hugger, but I don’t think I’d want to see the Cubs giving up any of their top four (Hoerner, Brennen Davis, Miguel Amaya, and Brailyn Marquez) in a Merrifield deal, and maybe that’s the line at which the two sides simply can’t come to an agreement (heck, maybe that’s been the behind-the-scenes push-and-pull for a while now).