The question is probably the most frequently asked about the KC Royals. The time of year doesn’t matter—winter, spring, summer or fall, someone, somewhere, makes the inquiry.
Are the Royals trading Whit Merrifield?
The club never answers unequivocally, nor should it. When the issue comes up, President of Baseball Operations Dayton Moore’s stock responses essentially suggest the franchise might listen to Merrifield suitors, but has no plans or intention to move its most versatile player.
The fact of the matter is, of course, that no Royal (except perhaps Salvador Perez) is currently untouchable. The unforgiving business of baseball is such that Merrifield can be had for the right price, but what Kansas City would require in return, at least at this point in his career, is apparently more than other clubs are willing to pay.
None of that will stop the ever-swirling speculation about Merrifield, however. It’s irresistible, almost an addiction with some. But what happens in 2022 is going to end it one way or another.
Next season will be the fourth of Whit Merrifield’s 4-year KC Royals deal.
It was just three years ago next month that the Royals gave themselves and Merrifield significant security. What the club wanted was clear—a buyout of its budding star’s arbitration years. So it was Moore signed Merrifield to a four-year deal guaranteeing him $16.25 million, with various opportunities to make even more based on a creative incentive structure that includes an option boost tied to staying healthy.
Next season is Merrifield’s “contract year”—the final campaign of the deal sure to determine the extent of his immediate Kansas City future. He’s certain to earn the option boost, one that will require the Royals to pay him $10.5 million if they want to keep him another year. The contract-based alternative is to buy him out for $750,000, so it’s overwhelmingly cheaper to let him go.
Taken alone, then, the contract itself, with no other considerations or contingencies, means 2022 will be Merrifield’s last in Kansas City unless the Royals pay him almost $8 million more to stay than the minimum he’ll collect next season.
But that doesn’t mean Merrifield will last long enough in Kansas City for the club to have to decide what to do with him for 2023.
The KC Royals could trade Whit Merrifield before the 2022 season ends.
Only the transaction freeze occasioned by the current MLB lockout has quieted any winter rumors about Merrifield, although Kansas City isn’t likely to move him in the offseason—the summer is the time to pull the trigger.
Why? Barring a sudden deterioration in his formidable skills, Merrifield’s trade value peaks much closer to July’s trade deadline, when contending teams give up a lot to secure stars for their stretch runs. The palatability of dealing Merrifield away will also peak then: moving him means moving his contract, and with it the obligations to pay him $10.5 million to remain a Royal or $750,000 to leave.
If he’s playing well, the Royals don’t do a July Merrifield deal, and they aren’t in contention themselves at midseason, bet on the club keeping him for 2023.
The possibility of another Royals-Merrifield deal can’t be dismissed.
Assume the Royals don’t move Merrifield to another club this winter or next season, but aren’t eager to pick up his option for $10.5 million. Open to the club are other alternatives—it can buy Merrifield out for $750,000, then try to re-sign him for another season at less than the option price. Or it could extend him for another two or three seasons.
What the Royals do ultimately depends on Merrifield’s performance. Although his defense was superb last season (he was a Gold Glove nominee), his batting average and OBP slipped to .277 and .317, the lowest marks of his career. As long as he doesn’t decline further, Kansas City will likely want him back; if his numbers suffer more, the club might cut him loose.
So, what will happen? No one knows at this point, but the combination of Merrifield’s contract status, the amount of money necessary to keep him, and the alternatives the Royals will have during and immediately after next season mean the issue gets resolved in 2022. Even if Kansas City doesn’t finalize its decision until early 2023, what occurs in 2022 determines the outcome.
Whit Merrifield should know his Kansas City future sometime in 2022.