The KC Royals have one of the most versatile players in the game, but would a season at one position be best for him and the team?
Happy Holidays and welcome back to Kings of Kauffman’s “KC Royals Wish List” series. For the 12 days leading up to Christmas, our writers will share their holiday wishes for the Royals. Whether they’re more offseason improvements, success in 2021, or hope for the future, anything could be in store. Today, our wish is for Whit Merrifield.
May 18, 2021 will mark the fifth anniversary of Whit Merrifield’s first major league game. Assuming the world is a bit more normal than it is now and, as presently scheduled, the KC Royals host Milwaukee that day, Merrifield’s role will be much different than it was for his debut.
Merrifield inconspicuously batted ninth and played left field that May evening; since then, he’s hit at the bottom of the order only eight times, which isn’t surprising for someone who’s twice led the big leagues in hits, and he’s seen left field just 30 times. And although he singled off David Price for his first major league hit and went 1-for-3, little about that night to foretold what was to come.
Since then, and despite playing only five seasons, Merrifield paced the majors in hits in 2018 and 2019, tied for the lead or led both leagues in stolen bases, triples, at-bats and games played, and tied for the American League lead in games and steals. He’s achieved those milestones quietly and with less fanfare than other stars might have, an anomaly perhaps best explained by the fact he’s probably better known as the best utility-type player in the business.
It would be easy to label Merrifield the quintessential utility player and leave it that, but he is much more. He’s not the typical utility man who comes to the park not knowing where (or if) he’ll play; to the contrary, Merrifield is an established everyday player, superbly talented in the field and at the plate and whose understated athleticism, baseball acumen and confidence make him the most successfully versatile regular in the majors.
He is the Royal manager Mike Matheny puts wherever he needs him, knowing Merrifield is invariably up to the task. For Matheny, and Ned Yost before him, moving him around the field like the uniquely versatile queen piece on a chess board has been more about need than choice—the Royals’ many holes have too often required improvisation.
Next season, though, could be different. General Manager Dayton Moore, with principal owner John Sherman’s obvious and welcome blessing, is uncharacteristically active on the free agent market, pursuing and signing (so far) Carlos Santana, Michael A. Taylor and Mike Minor in lieu of the usual reclamation projects and bit players.
Santana should stabilize the infield by providing a long-needed fix at first base; although Hunter Dozier, the third baseman who moved to the outfield when Maikel Franco signed last winter, then to first when Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom failed to claim the job, can return to the hot corner. Adalberto Mondesi is, of course, the shortstop, and Nicky Lopez the second baseman until when and if the value of his glove no longer outweighs his shortcomings with the bat.
And with Taylor in center, and Moore openly searching for another outfielder—presumably to replace Alex Gordon in left—Merrifield can move to right, where he seems just as comfortable as he does at second, or left if the club needs him there.
Some say Merrifield is a natural second baseman; others say he’s a natural center fielder. The former is probably correct, but the latter runs a close second. He’s played 402 games at second and 70 in center, although he’s played right more (117 times) than center or left combined largely because he spent most of September there after Dozier moved to first. He’s also seen action at first and third, and DH’d. But wherever he plays, he doesn’t miss a beat.
Logic, however, dictates that staying in one place for a while could benefit Merrifield. Stability is a good thing and certainly wouldn’t hurt him, or the KC Royals–Merrifield settling into one position would reflect a more stable lineup and satisfaction with the rest of the club.
Here’s our wish, then, that at this time next year, we’ll be able to say Merrifield landed and stayed primarily at one position in 2021. If that happens, it means Santana succeeded at first, Lopez improved sufficiently at the plate, Dozier’s return to third base worked out, Taylor met the club’s expectations, Moore found a left fielder, and the Royals improved.
Here’s hoping Whit Merrifield can focus on one position most of next season. If he can, it will mean good things are happening to him and the KC Royals.