Whit Merrifield had long journey to making Royals’ major-league roster

Whit Merrifield made his major-league debut and got his first hit for the Royals on Wednesday night.
Whit Merrifield made his major-league debut and got his first hit for the Royals on Wednesday night.

Late on Tuesday night, as the sun set off the coast of Puget Sound, Whit Merrifield reached for his cell phone near the 18th green at Chambers Bay Golf Course, the site of the 2015 U.S. Open.

Merrifield had just finished a round of golf with a group of teammates, the perfect entry into a day off after the Class AAA Omaha Storm Chasers finished a four-game series against Tacoma.

As he peered at his cell phone, Merrifield saw a text message from Omaha manager Brian Poldberg. The moment stunned him, he said. But once he saw the text, he essentially knew.

After nearly six full years in the Royals’ organization, Merrifield, 27, was finally summoned to the major leagues, joining the Royals on Wednesday afternoon after the opening game of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox.

Merrifield was added to the 40-man roster while infielder Christian Colon was optioned back to Omaha. Outfielder Jose Martinez was designated for assignment. Merrifield made his major-league debut in a 5-2 loss on Wednesday night, starting in left field and finishing 1 for 3 with a single off Boston starter David Price.

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The decision to swap Colon for Merrifield was, in part, about versatility, Royals manager Ned Yost said. Merrifield can handle all four infield positions and all three outfield spots; the Royals will likely move forward with a 13-man pitching staff (and three-man bench) while left-hander Danny Duffy is stretched out into a starter.

Operating with a short bench, the Royals viewed Colon and second baseman Omar Infante as somewhat redundant pieces. Infante, 34, has posted a .570 OPS (on-base plus slugging) in 31 games; Colon, 27, had a .608 OPS in 16 games. Infante is also still owed nearly $16 million on a four-year contract he signed before the 2014 season, including a $2 million buyout on an option year in 2018.

“We got to protect ourselves on the pitching side,” Yost said, explaining the decision to promote Merrifield. “The versatility is important.”

The Royals also have a decision to make when third baseman Mike Moustakas returns from the disabled list on Saturday. If the Royals continue forward with 13 pitchers, the club could choose to send Cheslor Cuthbert back to Omaha, where he could log starts at second base and perhaps become an option there.

The Royals have expressed confidence in Cuthbert’s ability to play second, yet he has only made three starts there in his professional career.

For now, though, Merrifield’s versatility could allow the Royals to try different gambits to generate offense. He could log starts at second base behind Infante. He could make spot starts in the outfield and third base, allowing the Royals to rotate other players — Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Moustakas — into the designated hitter role, if the club sought an alternative for a struggling Kendrys Morales.

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Merrifield’s ability to play the outfield also allows Yost to utilize Jarrod Dyson as a pinch runner late in games, without burning his only backup outfielder option.

For Merrifield, though, the promotion represents a career breakthrough after a long climb through the minor leagues. In his sixth full season in the Royals system, Merrifield was batting .278 with a .342 on-base percentage and 16 extra-base hits at Class AAA Omaha. On Wednesday, he donned a Royals uniform for the first time as his parents, sister, brother and fiance flew to Kansas City for the day.

“It’s hard to explain,” Merrifield said. “You work your whole life in this game to get to this level.”

A former high school shortstop and college center fielder at South Carolina, Merrifield grew into an athletic utility man in the Southeastern Conference while helping the Gamecocks win an NCAA championship in 2010. (Merrifield recorded the game-winning hit in the championship game, the final College World Series game at Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium.)

The Royals selected Merrifield in the ninth round of the 2010 draft. He forged a path to the big leagues by adding positions and increasing his value.

“We were really impressed with him last year, too,” Yost said during spring training. “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.”

In six seasons in the minors, Merrifield developed into a steady producer at the plate. 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.

Still, Merrifield did not receive a September callup last season, nor was he placed on the 40-man roster. So he spent the offseason putting on weight and sweating through grueling workouts at Torque Performance, a gym near his home in North Carolina. His diet consisted of nine eggs for breakfast and another six meals throughout the day. He reported to spring training at 195 pounds, 20 pounds heavier than he finished last season. He parlayed the extra bulk into a terrific spring training, impressing club officials with his bat and defensive versatility.

“He’s a baseball player, man,” Yost said.

On late Tuesday night, after receiving the news in Washington, Merrifield called his parents, who made their own travel arrangements. Merrifield hopped on a plane bound for Kansas City. He saw his name written into the starting lineup for Wednesday’s night game. And in the top of the first inning, Red Sox leadoff man Mookie Betts drilled a line drive over his head in left field.

“I think everyone knew the first ball was coming to left,” Merrifield said.

For now, it’s still unclear how much Merrifield will play over the next few weeks. But after focusing on a singular goal — making the big leagues — for the last six years, Merrifield said he was happy to focus on something else.

“The most exciting thing for me, being here now, is finally getting back to playing games that matter, playing games where the goal of the game is to win,” Merrifield said. “You can try all you want in the minor leagues; it’s just not the environment. It’s so exciting to get back to not caring about anything but winning.”

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