Seeking more versatility and perhaps a shot of athleticism and energy, the Royals summoned utility man Whit Merrifield from Class AAA Omaha on Wednesday afternoon and optioned infielder Christian Colon back to Omaha. To make room on the 40-man roster, the club also designated outfielder Jose Martinez for assignment.
The announcement came just an hour after a 3-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox in the first game of a day-night doubleheader. Merrifield debuted in left field during the Royals’ 5-2 loss on Wednesday night, recording his first career hit against Boston left-hander David Price.
For now, the move likely means that the Royals will continue to carry 13 pitchers as left-hander Danny Duffy builds up his pitch count in a starting role. Merrifield, 27, possesses the ability to play all four infield positions and all three outfield spots, offering more flexibility and speed. Colon, meanwhile, was deemed expendable as the Royals reconfigured their roster in advance of the return of third baseman Mike Moustakas, who is expected to be activated Saturday in Chicago. By then, the club must also make a decision on third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert, who has excelled on defense and is batting .255 in 12 games while filling in for the injured Moustakas.
“We got to protect ourselves on the pitching side,” Royals manager Ned Yost said late Wednesday. “The versatility is important. Plus, on the days [Merrifield] doesn’t play, he had 16 stolen bases already in Class AAA. It’s another piece we can use off the bench to help us win a game.”
Merrifield, 27, was batting .278 with a .342 on-base percentage, five homers and 11 doubles in 36 games at Omaha. A ninth-round selection out of South Carolina in 2010, Merrifield is a former high school shortstop and college center fielder who has grown into a super-utility man in the minor leagues.
He was a candidate to make the Royals’ club out of spring training after a strong performance in camp. But he was not a member of the club’s 40-man roster, which diminished his chances.
In the short term, it appears the club preferred the versatility of Merrifield over the experience of Colon, who started the first game of the doubleheader on Wednesday. In 16 games, Colon, a former first-round pick, is batting .250 with a .313 on-base percentage. He also has just two doubles while hitting no home runs.
“If we pinch-run (Dyson) for somebody, Whit can go in and play anywhere on the field,” Yost said. “It was just the versatility that we felt like we needed.”
The Royals didn’t waste any time throwing Merrifield into the lineup. He started in left field in place of Alex Gordon and finished 1 for 3, with a strikeout and a fly-out to center field in his first at-bat.
“I got a little antsy the first at-bat,” Merrifield said. “I almost swung at a cutter that hit me in the chest. But after that, I settled in and started picking the ball up a little better.”
Merrifield’s debut comes during his sixth full season in the Royals’ system. 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.