Whit Merrifield wasn’t part of the core that transformed the Royals into contenders and then champions in 2014 and 2015, but he’s now positioned to serve as a franchise cornerstone alongside Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez.
In fact, his new four-year contract opens the door for Merrifield to remain with the club longer than either of those two. He’s the only Royals player who’s currently under contract through 2022.
The Royals officially announced Monday that Merrifield, who turned 30 last week, and the club had agreed to a new deal that keeps him under club control through 2022, as well as a fifth-year club option that could make him a Royal through 2023, when he’d enter the season at age 34. MLB Network first reported the deal on Sunday night.
“I had a conversation with my dad in 2015 after I got called up and sent back down — I got called up and they changed their mind as I was going to Kansas City — about ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore,’” Merrifield said at a news conference at Kauffman Stadium on Monday. “He said, ‘Fine. That’s great. But just know that when you take your cleats off, you can’t ever put them back on.’
“That was kind of the moment I thought about it and said I’ll ride it out until I really can’t take it anymore. I’m glad I did. I’m glad we had that conversation.”
The Royals rewarded Merrifield with a contract that offers him guaranteed money, security and peace of mind.
Meanwhile, the organization receives a measure of cost certainty going forward.
The four-year deal guarantees Merrifield $16.25 million with an additional $2 million in reachable salary escalators, as well as another $1.6 in performance bonuses, a source told The Star. That makes the first four years potentially worth a maximum of $19.85 million.
The fifth-year club option would pay Merrifield $10.5 million but also comes with $400,000 in reachable salary escalators on top of another $1 million in additional escalators. His fifth-year option could max out at $11.9 million. However, the deal includes club protection that could reduce the fifth-year option to as low as $6.5 million.
Merrifield had been slated to earn $600,000 this season on a one-year deal before becoming arbitration-eligible for 2020-22 and a free agent in 2023.
“You know in the back of your head that individually you’ve got to put up numbers to be successful in the arbitration process, and that was something that I found in the past isn’t a good recipe for me to be successful,” Merrifield said. “So to have this done and to not worry about having to go through that process, I feel like is going to free me to play my best baseball and be solely concerned with what I have to do today to help us win.”
Merrifield led the majors with 192 hits and 45 stolen bases in 2018, becoming just the third player since World War II to lead the majors in hits and stolen bases (Dee Gordon in 2015 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 are the others). He also batted .304 with 43 doubles and 12 home runs, scored 88 runs, and tallied a .367 on-base percentage and .438 slugging percentage.
Merrifield made his major-league debut in 2016. Last season, he played 108 games at second base while also spending some time at first base as well as all three outfield positions. His versatility has been one of his most valuable assets.
Merrifield and the Royals were in a unique situation because of him being such a late bloomer and having the level of success he’s had. The team could have kept him under club control through 2022 via the arbitration process without signing him to a new deal.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore said the fact that Kansas City fans identify with Merrifield played a part in the contract, as did the organization’s desire to “win in the community” as well as on the field.
“Whit represents a lot of that,” Moore said. “He does it naturally. It’s who he is. He’s a very engaging person. He’s very articulate. Whit has a career in baseball once the uniform is no longer a possibility. He can do a lot of different things in this game. He manages his personal life very well.”
The Royals and Merrifield’s representatives began early discussions about a contract more than a year ago. But they really ramped up those talks during the winter meetings and continued until they reached an agreement.
“Look, if you’re going to give a player a long-term contract, you want to trust him,” Moore said. “We trust Whit Merrifield.”