The winter days began with a breakfast of nine eggs, a 700-calorie feast of protein, cholesterol and fuel. Then came a bowl of hot oatmeal to top it off.
For lunch, Whit Merrifield dined on three servings of chicken, rice and vegetables. For dinner, he piled a serving of red meat on his plate. In between the gorging, he chowed on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and shakes while working out at Torque Performance, a gym near his home in North Carolina.
The goal was simple enough: To add bulk to a 6-foot-1 frame, Merrifield wanted to consume the equivalent of seven meals each day. In the early days of the offseason, the task felt herculean. Merrifield, a utility man in the Royals’ minor-league system, compared it to training as a marathon runner. At some point, your body breaks down. Your stomach hits a wall.
“Once I did that, and got sick a couple times, it started getting easier,” Merrifield said.
By the end of the winter, the extreme diet — combined with an intense workout regimen — paid dividends. Merrifield, 27, weighed in at 195 pounds when spring training began, 20 pounds heavier than when he finished last season at Class AAA Omaha. In the early weeks of spring training, the Royals have taken notice.
As the club searches for ways to optimize its bench, Merrifield has surfaced as a possible final piece, a utility player who could be useful as a 25th man.
His strength stems from his versatility. A former center fielder at South Carolina, Merrifield can play all three outfield spots and all four spots in the infield. Merrifield, a former ninth-round pick in 2010, logged time at all seven positions in 2015.
“We were really impressed with him last year, too,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “You just kind of appreciate more his ability to be a super-utility guy. He can play all outfield positions, very solidly. (He can play) all infield positions.”
For now, the framework of the Royals’ bench is mostly in place, with a few moving pieces. If Christian Colon fails to unseat Omar Infante at second base, he will likely profile as the club’s backup infielder. The Royals will also carry at least four outfielders. But if club officials are faced with a choice of carrying five outfielders or another infielder, Merrifield could be a compromise candidate.
“He can swing the bat,” Yost said. “He can bunt. He can steal bases.”
In six seasons in the Royals’ system, he has also developed into a useful bat at the minor-league level. In 2014, he hit .317 with eight homers and 41 doubles while spending time at Class AA Northwest Arkansas and Class AAA Omaha. He returned to Omaha in 2015, batting .265 with a .317 on-base percentage in 135 games. He also stole 32 bases in 39 attempts.
“I know I can play,” Merrifield said. “And I think I can play in the big leagues, and my job is just to come out and do the best I can and show what I can do.”
Most important to his cause: His versatility, the origins of which date to his high school days. Merrifield said he played shortstop at Davie County (N.C.) high school, but he moved to center field after signing with the University of South Carolina. By his junior year, South Carolina coach Ray Tanner asked Merrifield if he would consider playing some at third base, in an effort to add more offense to the lineup.
Merrifield agreed, and he soon added second base and right field to his repertoire. The decision proved to be a wise one. The Gamecocks won the 2010 College World Series. Merrifield recorded the game-winning RBI in the championship game. And major-league clubs, including the Royals, identified his varied skill set.
“Officially, I was drafted as an outfielder,” Merrifield said. “But I think they knew I could do multiple things.”
Merrifield says he still feels most comfortable in center field, but after six seasons in the Royals’ system, club officials struggle to say which position is his best. A year ago, he played 57 games at second base, 35 in left field, 15 at third base and 14 at first base. A few years ago, Merrifield says, he even volunteered to pitch during a blowout at Northwest Arkansas. He threw a scoreless inning, retiring future big-leaguers C.J. Cron and Randall Grichuk in the process.
“He’s a baseball player, man,” Yost said. “He can play baseball. But he can play all positions.”