Just when I thought this would be the season the KC Royals decided to swallow hard and say a difficult goodbye to Whit Merrifield, they fooled me. Trading their always productive and most versatile player, one who along with Salvador Perez constitutes the glue that holds this team together, finally made the most sense it ever has.
At 33, Merrifield has hit his mid-30’s, a career point where, regardless of skill, so many players slow down. His regular season hitting is still reliable, but not what it was four seasons ago. The market value is still there but won’t be forever, and perhaps not for long.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a huge Merrifield fan ever since he broke in with the Royals in 2016, a year too late to enjoy the team’s two straight World Series trips, but just in time to figure prominently in a rebuild and contribute to the few successes his team has mustered.
My appreciation for Merrifield aside, though, I set out to write a piece predicting his departure by this season’s trade deadline. But the Royals unknowingly scuttled that plan Wednesday when, on the eve of Opening Day, they announced a reworking of his current contract.
But even with a new arrangement in place, let’s not proclaim Merrifield a Royal for life just yet. The deal won’t stop the trade talk and rumors that swirl around Merrifield whenever spring turns to summer and teams begin looking for ways to improve themselves for the stretch run.
Why? The terms of the deal as reported Wednesday by mlb.com KC beat writer Anne Rogers tell the tale.
His deal isn’t an ironclad case for Whit Merrifield staying with the KC Royals.
Rogers reports the Royals started by picking up Merrifield’s option for next season, then retooled his contract to pay him $7 million this year and a $2.75 minimum next year that can increase to $6.75 million if he satisfies certain escalators. Spending a third year (2024) in Kansas City isn’t guaranteed—only a mutual $18 million option (both sides must agree to exercise it) locks Merrifield in, and a $500,000 buyout rules him out…unless, of course, he and the Royals craft some new arrangement between now and then.
Understanding why the new deal doesn’t mean Merrifield will retire a Royal requires knowing the details of the contract he and his employer just tore up. Per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the four-year, escalator-packed minimum $16.25 million deal he signed before spring training began in 2019 would have paid him at least $3.25 million this season. Next year depended on an option tied to an injury-avoidance incentive capable of pushing it to at least $10.5 million.
So, Merrifield’s 2022 salary, a minimum $3.25 million under the old contract, is now $7 million, then decreases to $2.75 for 2023…unless, of course, his performance triggers the escalators, in which case he can make $4 million more.
And those escalators are important. Not just to Merrifield, but also to whoever signs his paychecks.
That might not be the Royals. After all, this year’s $7 million guarantee is still moderate compensation—his previous deal arguably underpaid him, and on many clubs, his skill, versatility, leadership and what he means in the clubhouse could collectively command much more.
That means other teams will come calling at trade deadline time. They’ll be undeterred, if not attracted, by the prospect of acquiring Merrifield for the rest of 2022 and getting an additional season of his services at a reasonable price. (The $18 million option for 2024 is probably a non-factor: although Merrifield may jump on it, his employer almost certainly won’t).
This new deal, then, won’t stop the trade talk. Not unless Merrifield declines so appreciably, especially at the plate, that teams won’t risk assuming even his reasonable salary. Despite the fact his offensive numbers have dropped in recent years—he hit a career-high .304 in 2018, .302 in 2019, .282 two seasons ago and .277 last year (which playing 469 straight games as he enters his mid 30’s might have something to do with)—Merrifield stays in superb shape and slashed .385/.467/.692 with a 1.159 OPS in Cactus League action this spring.
But what about fans who’ll say the Royals’ refusal to trade him means they definitely won’t now? Just remember their plethora of progressing infield and outfield prospects looking for places to play. Remember his value is naturally decreasing. And remember they traded Danny Duffy last season.
Look for interest in Merrifield to be unchanged this summer.
Whether Kansas City listens to his suitors is the question.
His new deal doesn’t guarantee Whit Merrifield will remain a Royal.