Whit Merrifield is battling for a Royals roster spot as an incumbent, not as a prospect, which makes this unlike past spring trainings.
“Previous springs for me have been about getting on the radar with the coaches and the front office,” Merrifield said. “This year, it’s about proving to them I can help this team on an everyday level. I think I’m ready to show them that.”
The Royals are ready to see it. Merrifield, 28, is one of the club’s options at second base along with Christian Colon, Cheslor Cuthbert and Raul Mondesi, and all bring different qualities to the position.
From an experience standpoint, no one has a big edge. In his rookie season, Merrifield made the most starts, 55, for the Royals at second. Mondesi started 40 games, Omar Infante 38 and Colon 29. Cuthbert appeared in 128 games, all at third base, but has spent the offseason working at second.
As hitters, Cuthbert has the most power, hitting 12 home runs last season. Merrifield’s .283 batting average and .323 on-base percentage were the best of the group. Mondesi has the slickest glove.
Colon, who has played three major-league seasons, has the most time invested with the club. He and Merrifield were drafted in 2010, with Merrifield making his debut last May 18.
What a start it was. Merrifield collected at least one hit in each of his first 11 major-league starts, and he picked up at least two hits in seven of those games. “Two-hit Whit” became one of the team’s most popular players.
He had taken over the position by late May, worked his way into the leadoff role, and kept his batting average over .300 until the first week of July. Pitchers caught up and Merrifield seemed to hit a wall. He went through a five-for-45 stretch, and in late July, he returned to Class AAA Omaha.
As he looked back on last season, Merrifield characterized it as typical. His batting average was 10 points above his career minor-league mark, but the swoon in July was longer than usual.
“You go through streaks where you’re real hot and some streaks where you’re not feeling so great,” Merrifield said. “The key to putting together a good season is when you’re not feeling good to minimize that time.
“Figure out why you aren’t feeling good, what’s going on with your swing, what’s going on with your approach. Last year, it took me a little longer to figure it out than I would have liked. Hopefully I learned from that.”
Merrifield returned to form in the final month, hitting .307 with a .360 on-base percentage in September and October.
One of the Royals’ most versatile players, Merrifield also played games at third base, first base, left field and right field.
“If I put (a player) in a game at a position, I’ve got to have confidence that’s he’s going to get the job done,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “And with Whit, there’s not a spot on the field that I don’t have confidence that I can put him in and he’s going to get the job done. It’s a good feeling.”
Merrifield, who said he’d have graded his major-league debut season a B-minus, says there is plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to the mental aspects of the game. He’s a workout warrior who believes he’ll be more prepared to prevent a prolonged downturn at the plate.
“It’s mentally sticking with your approach, studying the pitcher and committing to your game plan,” Merrifield said.
First, he has to get the chance. The position battle begins in earnest on Saturday when the Cactus League season begins.
“I’m excited about the opportunity,” Merrifield said. “We’ve got a lot of guys, good players fighting for spots. It’s going to be a competition, but that brings out the best in you. I have a chance to make a major-league roster. I’m ready to start working.”