KC Royals: Does KC’s Whit Merrifield deserve more?

Whit Merrifield signed a four-year contract extension with the KC Royals a year ago. In retrospect, and considering his value to the franchise, does he deserve more?

Whether the KC Royals should trade Whit Merrifield for a package of prospects is a tired topic. Indeed, the mountains of content and copy already written about the subject would fill the Royals’ equipment truck soon to depart Kauffman Stadium for Spring Training. So this is not another story about trading Merrifield.

Instead, it is a story posing an altogether different question: Does Whit Merrifield, recipient of a contract extension just a year ago, deserve more than the minimum $16.25 million he stands to make from the deal?

Some may view this as an odd question–after all, unless Merrifield is financially inept or reckless, his extension makes him a multi-millionaire and provides lifetime financial security, the pleasant rewards of a career spent with his nose to the baseball grindstone. But the contract, by which he stands to make even more than the base $16.25 million if he meets certain performance targets, must be viewed in the context in which it was made, a combination of performance, club precedent, a comparable contemporary, and baseball finances.

Merrifield signed his new deal in January 2019, with two-and-a-half big league seasons under his belt. Perhaps best known as a top utility man during his first three campaigns, Merrifield also made his mark offensively. His average progressed from .283 to .288, then to .304; his OPS+ rose similarly, from 91 to 106 to 120. He led the majors in hits with 192 in 2018; hit 19 home runs in ’17 and 12 in ’18; averaged over 32 doubles; and led the American League in stolen bases with 34 in ’17 and the majors with 45 in ’18.

Those numbers earned Merrifield his contract extension, one worth considerably more than the $569,500 he made in 2018. The deal paid him $1 million for 2019 and will pay $5 million in 2020, $6.75 million in ’21 and $2.75 million in ’22. There’s a $10.5 million option for ’23 with a $750,000 buyout.

The new contract kicked in with the 2019 season, a banner campaign for Merrifield during which he earned every bit of the $1 million due him: he played every game, led the majors in hits with 206 and at-bats, tied for the big league lead with 10 triples, hit .302 with an .811 OPS and 112 OPS+, and made the All-Star team.

That Merrifield deserves the contract’s average annual value of over $4 million is indisputable. He’s a top-performing valuable franchise mainstay and fan favorite. But does he actually deserve more–should the KC Royals sweeten his already sweet deal?

Some may say the financial certainty and security $16.25 million brings is enough–after all, the deal saves Merrifield from the anxious times of arbitration and free agency and makes him rich.  But contract extensions are two-way streets–baseball is a business and clubs don’t do one-sided deals…at least not to their own detriment. The KC Royals achieved their own levels of certainty and security at a cost likely less than Merrifield’s true value.

Others may say giving Merrifield more money would be foolish because he’s getting older.  While he’s not 21, he just turned 31, not an elderly age even for baseball players who play far more games per season than any other professional athlete, and his health and fitness regimen is legend. Of course, Alex Gordon was also 31 when he signed his four-year deal and had (and still has) a remarkable workout regimen, but he didn’t measure up to the money. But there is perhaps a better comparable for Merrifield–Ben Zobrist.

Unlike Gordon, but like Merrifield, Zobrist is a jack-of-all-trades who can play virtually anywhere on the diamond and suffers well the physical wear and tear exacted by doing so. Zobrist signed a multi-year deal at age 30 after making less than $500,000 the prior season–Tampa Bay gave him $18 million for three years beginning in 2011 and for the next three seasons he averaged over 17 home runs, over 78 RBIs, and almost 15 stolen bases, with batting averages of .269, .270 and .275,and OPS+ ratings of 131, 137 and 112. Good players can still play in their 30’s.

Moreover, the Royals themselves don’t foresee Merrifield declining anytime soon–their belief that he will continue to be productive for the extension’s term contributed to their willingness to do the deal. The Royals’ continuing refusal to trade him reflects his value and viability.

The Merrifield-Zobrist comparison is not, of course, perfect, a flaw inherent in any player comparisons, especially when those comparisons involve performances occurring years apart. But Merrifield is more Zobrist than he is Gordon, and the annual average value of Zobrist’s deal exceeds Merrifield’s by almost $2 million–a figure not adjusted for present day value, which would undoubtedly increase the disparity. Although Zobrist’s deal was for three years and Merrifield’s covers four, Merrifield is quite arguably underpaid in comparison.

Still others may say the KC Royals shouldn’t have extended Merrifield at all, a notion suggesting strict adherence to the sequence and timeline established by baseball’s collective bargaining agreement–in other words, players and clubs should follow the cumbersome, uncertain steps of pre-arbitration (with its own nuances), arbitration and free agency. Let the sequence and market control, they would say, even if a player is clearly underpaid.

That argument ignores both precedent and trend. Extending Merrifield mirrored the precedent set by the Royals when they signed Salvador Perez in 2016 to a five-year extension beginning the following season; like Merrifield before his extension, Perez was underpaid on a famously one-sided deal and subject to multiple years of club control.

Obviously, that Merrifield and Perez received pre-free agency extensions doesn’t mean Merrifield should get a second. Extensions, however, are trending; whether in the pre-arbitration/free agency context or in the normal course of business, they are increasingly useful tools for clubs searching for continuity and certainty.

Finally, some may say, the KC Royals should learn a lesson from Gordon’s four-year contract, one that ultimately paid him far more than actual performance over its term warranted. But non-performance is an inherent and necessary risk all clubs assume when they sign players, and unavoidable in the ultra-competitive baseball industry. Raises are a function of individual performance, not another player’s shortcomings.

Bumping up Merrifield wouldn’t require extending him; simply reworking salary would be sufficient. On the other hand, a short extension may well be warranted if he puts up another stellar season in 2020–he’ll be 35 when his present deal expires and if the club still believes his worst days are far in the future, it might be wise to secure him soon for a back-end year or two, especially considering the club’s need for veteran leadership and mentoring as the Royals ripen into contenders.

Of course, a second extension for Merrifield, following so closely on the heels of and during the life of his first, would be unorthodox. He is probably still underpaid, but other clubs would decry such a move as dangerous, a first step down a perilous slippery slope, and the opening of an industry-wide labor and employment Pandora’s Box. (They could be right). And the argument that “a deal’s a deal” has some merit.

The concept of a new Merrifield deal–an extension on top of an extension–is novel, and probably ahead of a time that may never come. Merrifield and the Royals, though, might be the perfect test subjects for such an experiment. Their relationship is nothing less than a mutual admiration society–it might not take much to boost the deal to one more commensurate with Merrifield’s value to the franchise.

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Although contract extensions and other tools are in vogue as clubs and players alike search for more financial security and certainty, baseball’s landscape is becoming more fluid. The collective bargaining contract expires soon; the game’s era of labor peace is in peril. Is this the time for the KC Royals to even consider modifying Whit Merrifield’s contract? It’s probably too soon to rework his fresh four-year extension…but it may be something to consider.