This is the season of baseball players changing teams and one of the sport’s more valuable trade assets is Royals property. Done right, they could push some other contender toward a championship while bolstering their own chances in the future. A win-win.
The reasons they probably won’t do that tell the story of who the Royals are, who they see themselves to be, and the foundation of their plan to win another championship.
Whit Merrifield led all major-leaguers in hits and steals while playing five defensive positions. He has four years of club control remaining, and in 2019 will make slightly more than the league minimum salary.
He is productive, cheap, versatile, athletic, and could instantly fit toward the top of a championship club’s order.
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Internally, the Royals believe the core of their next contender will be in the big leagues by 2021, when Merrifield will be 32. Viewed coldly as return on investment, now is the best time to trade him. The younger talent acquired would be maturing by 2021, when Merrifield is likely to be fading.
Dayton Moore, the architect and foreman of the Royals’ last world champion, knows that Merrifield probably will never be more valuable in the eyes of other teams — he will never be younger, never be cheaper, and never offer more years of club control.
All of that is true, and so is this: Moore is unlikely to trade. Three primary considerations stand above the others, each a mix of practicality, emotion, and commitment to slow cook the next championship core.
No. 1: Who is the right trade partner?
The trade of Zack Greinke after the 2010 season is the Royals’ closest comparison to what a trade of Merrifield would look like now.
There are significant differences. Greinke was four years younger and better than Merrifield, who is cheaper and with two more years of club control. But, as a crude instrument, the comparison works.
Back then, the Royals sent Greinke to Milwaukee for a package headlined by Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar. They also received Jake Odorizzi, who became a key piece in the trade that brought James Shields and Wade Davis. Nothing in baseball is linear, but it is highly unlikely the Royals could have won the 2015 World Series without that specific trade.
But getting there was a hot mess. Greinke had made his desire for a trade known, so the Royals cycled through many conversations. They were close with a few, most notably the Nationals, who agreed on a package headlined by Jordan Zimmerman and Derek Norris. The deal was dependent on the Nationals signing Greinke to an extension. Instead, he invoked his no-trade clause.
The Royals were fortunate to find the Brewers, who fit the general profile of a partner: deep in prospect depth, who can lose a few pieces without compromising immediate success.
The positions had to line up, too, and here it’s worth noting that part of why the Brewers were willing to deal Cain is they had Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan in center.
The Braves, Red Sox, Rays, Yankees and Dodgers are potential fits for the Royals and Merrifield in different ways.
But at least at the moment, a significant obstacle to a deal is the Royals’ internal belief that time is on their side because ...
No. 2: The Royals don’t want to go backward
The 2018 season ended with a modicum of promise but in many ways was a disaster. They lost 104 games, tied for second-most in franchise history, and suffered their largest one-year average attendance drop ever. All of this with an opening day payroll that pushed $130 million, and an antiquated TV contract that (thankfully) has just one year remaining.
Financially, it was a disaster.
So, trading Merrifield would not save money, but it would mean a worse team. Publicly, Moore has been pushing the message that he will no longer use the word “rebuild.” Trading Merrifield would be a full rebuke.
Financially, then, it could be another disaster.
Moore cares deeply about what baseball means to fans. As much as anything else, this is his guiding principle, for better or worse.
Alex Gordon’s contract will be up after 2019. Sal Perez is a proud All-Star. Danny Duffy loves the organization in a rare and deep way. Players understand the business side of baseball. Heck, they usually benefit from it.
But trading Merrifield would be the clearest possible sign to them that Moore and the front office simply do not care or believe in their ability to avoid another miserable season. If the players feel like the front office quit on them, they’ll be tempted to do the same in turn, further prioritizing narrow self-interests at the expense of everything else.
Moore cares deeply about organizational culture. That’s the first thing he worked to fix when he took the job — from a gameday dress code for baseball operations all the way up to a franchise record free agent contract for Gil Meche. His priority is protecting that, not wrecking it.
Besides, doing a deal now might not make practical sense because ...
No. 3: The Royals don’t yet know what they’ll need
If everything goes to plan the core of the next championship window will be in the big leagues by 2021. The Royals’ best version of their future is centered on Adalberto Mondesi, but also includes familiar names like Brad Keller and Jorge Soler, relatively familiar prospects like Khalil Lee and Brady Singer, and lesser known names like Kyle Isbel and Meibrys Viloria.
But they don’t know exactly what it will look like.
In 2013, the Royals could not have been sure about Cain’s future, for instance, and they were optimistic that Emilio Bonifacio or Elliot Johnson might help at second base.
In 2015, Cain finished third in MVP voting and the Royals were surgical about targeting Ben Zobrist to play second base.
So, when the Royals see time on their side they’re not just thinking about four years of club control. They’re thinking of the time to see how Nick Pratto, Nicky Lopez, Scott Blewiett, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and M.J. Melendez navigate the minor leagues. They’re thinking of time to see how Ryan O’Hearn, Hunter Dozier, Jorge Bonifacio, Brett Phillips and Brian Goodwin perform in the major leagues.
Even if the return in a trade might be a little higher right now, it won’t matter if the pieces don’t fit together.
Merrifield’s talent and versatility will always be valuable, for instance, but the Royals’ need for him at second base will be influenced by Lopez’s development.
In that way, holding onto Merrifield serves several purposes simultaneously: projects hope and confidence to players and fans, helps maintain culture of professionalism in the clubhouse, creates the best possible team for 2019, provides time to see what might be needed in a few years, and retains the ability to trade a presumably still valuable asset next summer or winter.
This is who Moore’s Royals have always been. This is who they will continue to be.