The KC Royals season would already be in jeopardy were it not for strong performances from rookies Whit Merrifield, Cheslor Cuthbert, Brett Eibner, Reymond Fuentes, and Brian Flynn. Most pundits ranked the Kansas City Royals farm system among the game’s bottom third.
The KC Royals entered the season with a veteran roster that had won the 2015 World Series. There seemed to be little room for rookies to contribute as more than garbage time relievers and bench bats. Instead, rookies like Whit Merrifield and Cheslor Cuthbert have filled regular jobs in the lineup, while the fill-ins have played better than expected.
With five rookies contributing to the big club in 2016, it’s clear that analysts under-rated the Kansas City Royals farm system pretty significantly last winter.
The big oversight was utility man Whit Merrifield. Merrifield was mostly ignored as little more than minor league filler after hitting a mere .265/.317/.364 at AAA Omaha in 2015 at age 26. I suppose we can’t blame them, the KC Royals exposed Merrifield in the Rule 5 draft last winter, and every team passed him up when they could have claimed him for the mere $50,000 draft fee.
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I’m sure a lot of front offices around baseball are kicking themselves over that one. Merrifield’s ability to play plus defense at every position but catcher means he could have filled a lot of holes around the league. For the Kansas City Royals, Merrifield has stopped the bleeding from the free-agent blunder of signing second baseman Omar Infante before the 2014 season.
All the 27-year-old Merrifield has done is slash .321/.345/.450, take over at second base, and displace unsuitable lead-off hitter Alcides Escobar, much to the delight of sabermetric-oriented KC Royals fans everywhere. Merrifield’s pop is the real surprise, which he attributes to an off-season weight program and follow through adjustment. He’s slugging .450 with the big club (10 doubles, 1 triple, 2 home runs) after a career .399 slugging percentage in seven minor league seasons.
Twenty-three year old Cheslor Cuthbert had fallen into obscurity with two mediocre seasons at AA after a strong debut at the level as a 20-year-old in 2013. That winter, Cuthbert hit both the tail end of Baseball America’s and Baseball Prospectus’s Top 100 prospects lists, only to fall off due to poor seasons in 2014 and 2015.
Cuthbert did flash major-league skills in a brief call-up in July, but was still lightly regarded around baseball. Cuthbert began to gain notice by slashing .333/.402/.624 with six home runs in one month of play at Omaha to being 2016. He then got a golden opportunity when Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas tore his ACL May 22.
Cheslor Cuthbert took over at third base, and his solid .280/.315/.446 triple slash with seven home runs, plus his better-than-average defense, suggests that he can hold down a regular job in the major leagues. At 23, the former seven-figure international signee from Nicaragua is living up to his prospect pedigree.
Meanwhile, Brett Eibner and Reymond Fuentes helped keep the KC Royals offense afloat during Alex Gordon‘s month-long injury rehab, hitting .297/.350/.514 (Eibner) and .317/.364/.341 (Fuentes) during short stays in Kansas City. In their limited opportunities, both players showed they are capable of holding down a fourth outfielder job in KC, though they have both returned to AAA Omaha after Gordon’s return Saturday.
Brian Flynn has proved to be a useful lefty arm in the bullpen, notching a 3.38 ERA in 13.1 innings for the KC Royals. Flynn has become the team’s lefty specialist after Danny Duffy ascended to the rotation in May.
Combined, the five have provided 2.5 Wins Above Replacement (bWAR), which is pretty good for less than half a season of play. Given this performance, the Kansas City Royals farm system should have been at least ranked in the middle of the pack—which is pretty good considering they shipped out five lefty prospects at the trade deadline last year.