In the weeks after his demotion, after his scorching bat had cooled and his numbers nosedived, after his cult-hero story had returned to Class AAA Omaha, Whit Merrifield decided to take stock of his season.
In some ways, it was easy to assume that big-league pitchers had caught up to him. Maybe after a blazing start in May and June, a three-week slump in July was the result of some flaw that had finally revealed itself. Maybe Merrifield, the Royals’ 27-year-old utilityman, had a hole that was finally exposed. How else to explain a five-for-45 stretch (.111) in 13 games in July?
As Merrifield returned to the minor leagues in late July, he wondered the same thing himself. But it didn’t feel right, he said.
“People were quick to assume that pitchers made an adjustment to me when I started struggling,” Merrifield said. “(But) guys go through ups and downs. You’re going to have points of the year where you don’t feel great and your swing kind of feels off. I think that’s just kind of what it was.”
You could say, perhaps, that Merrifield has been validated by a September hot streak that, in some ways, has been more impressive than his torrid start. In 22 games this month, he is batting .329 with a .365 on-base percentage and a .808 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage). For Merrifield, the resurgence was especially important.
In the span of four months, he had opened his career with a .339 batting average in his first 27 games, survived a nasty slump and weathered a demotion to the minors while the Royals took at look at Raul Mondesi at second base. In September, Merrifield returned to Kansas City and started hitting again.
And so, as the club opens its final home stand with a game against the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night, Merrifield has resurfaced as a possible option at second base, a position that, barring an offseason acquisition, will likely remain muddled entering spring training in 2017.
“It’s wide open,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
This, of course, is a marked change from the last three seasons, when Omar Infante entered each year as the likely starter. But with Infante gone, the result of two years of diminishing offense, the Royals will look for a more stable answer at the spot next season.
It’s possible, too, that the club will consider free agent options this winter; second base and right field will likely lead the list of non-pitching priorities in the offseason. But Yost is confident the organization has the internal pieces to fill the spot.
Let’s consider the candidates: Mondesi, 21, still possesses high-ceiling talent and long-term potential, despite hitting just .189 (25 for 132) in his first 45 games. Club officials remain bullish on his future, in part, expecting some of the initial struggles.
Next, there is Christian Colon, a former first-round pick who has posted a career OPS of just .666 in 118 games and remains under club control through 2020. And finally, there is third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert, who could find himself boxed out at third base after the return of Mike Moustakas from a season-ending knee injury.
With Kendrys Morales likely headed for free agency, the Royals have mulled the idea of using the designated hitter position as a way to utilize both Moustakas and Cuthbert in the lineup. But improving an offense that ranks 14th in the American League in runs scored will be a top priority this winter, so club officials could feel less keen to that gambit after Cuthbert stumbled to the finish line.
The Royals also put a premium on defense, which could benefit somebody like Merrifield, who, according to advanced metrics, has been an above-average defensive player at second base.
“We’ve got areas that we need to address,” Yost said, when the second base topic came up last week. “We’ll address those first and go from there.”
Still, if Merrifield does not project as an every-day player at second base, he does offer value as a possible utility man. On Sunday in Detroit, he started at first base, becoming the first Royals player to start games at five different positions since Willie Bloomquist in 2010.
In his first season, Merrifield has started games as second (50), third (2), left field (11) and right field (3), in addition to his one-day cameo at first. As the Royals concluded their road schedule with a 12-9 victory over the Tigers, Merrifield racked up three more hits, finishing a homer short of the cycle. The opportunity offered another chance to prepare for next spring.
“I think mainly what I’ll take into next year is the confidence, knowing I can hit at this level,” Merrifield said. “Just certain things that will help me be a little consistent.”
For now, Merrifield’s streaky nature has weighed down his overall numbers. Among American League second baseman, Merrifield would rank 15th with a 90 OPS-plus, a statistic that measures OPS compared to league averages. But Merrifield’s defense and and base running have increased his overall value. Entering the final week of the season, Merrifield ranks fourth among American League rookies in Wins Above Replacement, racking up 1.5 wins, according to the FanGraphs’ version of the stat.
The Royals, of course, could have months to sort through possible options at second base. But after a strong September, Merrifield, at the least, will enter spring training as an option. At this point, that’s all he wants.
“I’ve always been one to have to work for positions that I’ve been given,” Merrifield said. “I’ve never really been handed a job, so I’m comfortable going in and competing with other guys.