The KC Royals chose an acclaimed college shortstop with their second 2020 draft pick. Some believe he’s versatile enough to be the next Whit Merrifield. But is he?
Whit Merrifield is an invaluable KC Royals asset, a gifted hitter and natural second baseman headed for center field this season, but capable of playing well just about anywhere on a baseball field. Hardly considered a future star when he broke in with the Royals in 2016, he’s now all but irreplaceable and probably the most versatile player in franchise history.
Someday, though, Merrifield won’t be a Royal. He’ll retire or, as some KC fans and observers hope, be traded away for prospects before his value falls too low. Teams are known to want Merrifield, but none have offered general manager Dayton Moore enough to pry him loose.
It doesn’t matter so much how Merrifield leaves; what matters more is that his unmatched versatility will go with him. Top-notch, utility-capable players like Merrifield don’t come along often; hopefully, the KC Royals find another to replace him. They may have already
Nick Loftin, the Baylor shortstop the club grabbed with its second 2020 amateur draft selection, has been almost universally ballyhooed as a super-utility type from the moment he was announced as the draft’s 32nd overall pick. He probably won’t see a pitch or field a grounder as a professional until 2021, but the hype is there.
I want to believe the hype. I want it to be true. Loftin is an excellent player, so good in fact that after the draft’s first day the Royals wasted no time suggesting they’d pondered taking him with their first pick (the fourth overall). But the club instead had to take superb, can’t-miss pitching prospect Asa Lacy, who was shockingly available when the Royals went on the clock. Fortunately, Loftin was undrafted when the Royals’ competitive balance pick came up at spot 32.
I knew about Loftin’s talent and potential, especially with the bat, before the draft but hadn’t zeroed in on his versatile side until draft commentators couldn’t wait to describe how he could, and apparently had, played just about everywhere. Comparisons to Merrifield exploded within minutes.
I immediately set out to discover what the versatility hype was all about, expecting to find proof positive that Loftin will be The Next Whit. What I turned up wasn’t proof positive. But it’s promising.
As a Baylor freshman in 2018, Loftin started 31 games at shortstop and 22 in left field; he also pitched twice (he’s not a pitcher). In 2019, he started at short 53 times and, once again, pitched twice for the Bears. Then, in this year’s shortened season, he started 14 games at short and one at second. Clearly, Baylor considered him more of a shortstop than anything else.
So, after playing primarily at short, spending some time as a freshman in the outfield, pitching four times and playing second once in three collegiate campaigns, how did Loftin become known for versatility?
The answer to that question is his 2019 stint with Team USA, an opportunity to play against international competition that lured him away from the Cape Cod League, the traditional summer showcase and proving ground for college players.
That Loftin started only six of 14 games for Team USA isn’t by any means the point — the team was star-studded and competition for playing time was keen. What mattered in the context of versatility, and what the draft coverage talking heads couldn’t stop chattering about, was how many positions Loftin played.
He got around the diamond more than he ever had at Baylor. Loftin played shortstop, second base, third base, left field, and right field. He hit a respectable .292 with a pair of doubles, a triple and a home run, but it was where he played in the field that drew the most attention.
Moving around the Team USA diamond provided, to be sure, a small sample: Loftin played twice at second, once at third and short, and once in left and right. However, the fact the coaching staff had enough confidence to plug him in wherever it needed is evidence that he’s sufficiently athletic and talented to play more than one position, something Baylor’s coaches obviously knew when he split time between shortstop and left field as a freshman.
Merrifield established himself as utility-capable in the minor leagues; although he played second more than any other single position, he drew duty in center, right and left fields and at first, third and short, and even pitched in one game. It won’t be a surprise if Loftin plays just as many positions.
At the plate, Merrifield was average in the minors, then became an accomplished hitter in the majors, as his two straight years leading the big leagues in hits proves. Loftin can definitely handle the bat — he slashed .311/.370/.479 in three Baylor seasons with a career .848 OPS. His plate discipline seems solid and he has some power. (Defensively, he needs some improvement).
Loftin is, again, a natural shortstop, but his athleticism, ability and the KC Royals’ crowded shortstop situation may force the club to test him as another Merrifield. Adalberto Mondesi‘s grip on shortstop is firm and top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. is also a shortstop. Loftin could, by necessity, become the Royal who plays wherever he’s needed.
Yes, the sample size is so far small, but there’s reason to believe Loftin can help replace Merrifield when the time comes.
Whit Merrifield’s versatility and hitting have spoiled the KC Royals. He’ll leave a big roster hole when he’s no longer a Royal, but it may be one Nick Loftin will be ready to fill.