A veteran National League utility infielder is on the free agent market. The KC Royals should consider spending the money reasonably necessary to add him to their roster.
Whit Merrifield is the quintessential baseball jack-of-all-trades, willing and able to play well anywhere he’s needed. Since his 2016 big league debut, Merrifield has played seven different positions for the KC Royals and twice led the majors in hits, twice led the American League in stolen bases (with one major league base theft title), tied for the big league triples lead, and ranked high in several other offensive categories. Like his versatility, his four-season .296/.344/.445 slash and 110 OPS+ speak for themselves
Although Merrifield is probably best suited for second base and hasn’t pitched or caught, he’s played everywhere in the outfield and every infield position except shortstop. But the club’s continuing center and right field deficiencies sparked early offseason speculation that Merrifield’s utility role would be limited in 2020 to allow him more time in center and right.
The Royals’ recent acquisition of Maikel Franco both altered and accelerated the club’s plans for Merrifield. To make room for Franco at third, Hunter Dozier is moving to right field, a move making any significant time Merrifield might play there largely unnecessary. Instead, Merrifield is slated to take over center; although Franco’s lineup-shifting acquisition contributed to the switch, it is more likely the failures of Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips to win the job that most accounts for the change.
The Royals’ reliance on Merrifield to play center, however, may–with the emphasis on may–eventually raise a perplexing question: what to do if Adalberto Mondesi, the team’s oft-injured rising star shortstop, gets hurt again? While injuries to other key players can raise similar concerns, it is harm to Mondesi that likely poses the most complex personnel issue. Mondesi’s two 2019 shoulder injuries and recent corrective surgery make his readiness by Opening Day uncertain and compound concerns about replacing him.
Should injury again befall Mondesi, an unfortunate but all too foreseeable possibility considering his history, the Royals would likely replace him with second baseman Nicky Lopez, whose natural position is shortstop, a spot from which his defense has drawn past raves. (Humberto Arteaga is an option, but Lopez would be better, especially if Mondesi were sidelined for a considerable time). Because second base is probably Merrifield’s best position, Merrifield would presumably replace Lopez.
But therein lies the rub–moving Merrifield out of center, where the KC Royals apparently now want him to spend most of his time, weakens a position desperately in need of the strength Merrifield otherwise gives it. Unless the club acquires an established outfielder, center would be left to the survivor of the anticipated contest between Phillips and Starling, neither of whom have displayed an appetite for major league pitching. Leaving Merrifield in center would be best, but who would play second until the lineup returned to normal?
Ideally, the Royals could turn to a player who wouldn’t be coming cold to the position–someone playing at least semi-regularly by giving other infielders necessary breaks from the rigors of playing every day, and capable of handling the bat. Someone like Wilmer Flores, the capable utility man who became a free agent in October when Arizona declined his $6 million option and bought him out for $500,000.
As touched on previously in this space, Flores is a seven-year big league veteran with considerable experience at each infield spot. He’s spent more time–165 games–at second than any other position, but has 143 games at both first and third. And while Merrifield hasn’t played short, Flores has 162 games at the position. Flores is by no analytic metric a plus defender, but he’s serviceable as a backup and his versatility is beyond question.
Flores’ hitting is also more than adequate: his career .268/.310/.432 slash, together with his .317 average in 89 games last season, prove he can hold his own at the plate. He owns a career 102 OPS+, hasn’t been below 100 since 2015, and averages 11 home runs per season as a part-time player.
That Arizona chose not to pick up Flores’ 2020 option probably had more to do with money than his on-field utility. Flores was playing on a $3.75 million contract; his option price was $6 million, and the D-backs were likely not inclined to pay a part-timer that much. His mid-season foot injury that sidelined him for two months likely played no role, either–he was hitting .281 before getting hurt and finished the campaign at .317.
Cost shouldn’t, however, deter the Royals. Just a month ago, General Manager Dayton Moore suggested the club’s 2020 payroll wouldn’t be much more than $80 million (if that), so signing Flores for, say, $4-4.25 million wouldn’t break the team bank. Nor would it impede the Royals’ abilities to craft advantageous contract extensions for key players or set money aside for critical stretch run free agent offers once the team returns to contention.
Flores may not be a Gold Glove infielder, but his versatility at age 28 is a commodity the Royals should covet if they really want to commit Merrifield to center field. Absent the emergence of Starling or Phillips as an offensive asset, or the acquisition of a proven outfield bat, it may be best to make that commitment, in which case finding a new and competent utility infielder like Flores is a must. He would be a valuable addition even if Mondesi never gets hurt and might be a good fit for the new 26th roster spot set for Opening Day implementation).
The KC Royals were willing to sign Trevor Rosenthal, a former star closer searching to regain his form, for $2 million (plus $2.25 million in incentives) last month. Investing $4-5 million (or proportionally more for a multi-year deal) to obtain Flores’ versatility seems reasonable.
If, as expected, Merrifield spends most of his time in center field for the KC Royals in 2020, the club will need another proven utility player. Wilmer Flores might just fit the bill.