Sam Mellinger

Here’s how Whit Merrifield’s contract is good for him, and even better for the Royals

Whit Merrifield signs new four-year contract with Royals

Kansas City Royals Whit Merrifield talked with the media on Monday January 28, 2019 after signing a new four-year contract with the Royals. The contract also has a fifth year club option in it.
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Kansas City Royals Whit Merrifield talked with the media on Monday January 28, 2019 after signing a new four-year contract with the Royals. The contract also has a fifth year club option in it.

Whit Merrifield is a genuine baseball success story. His name will be mentioned in minor-league clubhouses and long bus rides for years to come — a hero to so many wondering if the struggle is worth it.

He was never much of a prospect, missed the opportunity to be part of what ended up a run to the World Series in 2014 by a last-second change of mind, and admits now that by 25 he wondered if he would ever have a big-league career.

Well, he does now.

He’s the Royals’ best player, after a season in which he became just the third player since World War II to lead the majors in both hits and stolen bases. This week, that new stardom was memorialized with a four-year contract that guarantees $16.25 million with a club option for a fifth year. All together, the contract could be worth a possible total of $31.75 million.

Merrifield created this career with something so simple and difficult. He kept on, and once allowed a big-league opportunity, took advantage of everything available. We mean that literally, too.

Much is made of the jump in talent from Class AAA to the big leagues, and rightfully so. The pitches are faster, break harder and are more likely to be at the edges of the strike zone. If you are lucky and good enough to put the ball in play, the athletes on the other side are better and more likely to get you out.

It’s a brutal go. But Merrifield found a way to break through. Found a path to shrink the challenge, a loophole to run with the wind instead of against it.

“You also have things at this level going for you,” he said. “You’re playing under bright lights, you have good batters’ eyes, you have a lot of information. So you have a lot of things that sort of counter the level of competition at this level. Once I started figuring that out ... I realized, ‘OK, I can play at this level.’”

This is a point that Merrifield has made before, but one that takes on a broader significance now that he’s guaranteed himself and his family a life-changing amount of money.

Dayton Moore, the Royals’ general manager, said Merrifield “represents everything we’re about.” So the deal always made sense, in theory, but for it to actually happen a few things needed to be in place.

Merrifield needed to be OK with trading a lower ceiling on his potential earnings for long-term security. The Royals needed to trust that money was not Merrifield’s primary motivator, and that the contract would not change his preparation habits or the screw-you edge that’s worked so well for him.

Also, and this is notable: the Royals needed flexibility.

The specific payments are part of that. Merrifield will make $1 million in 2019, $5 million in 2020, $6.75 million in 2021, and $2.75 million in 2022.

This is a significant break from the Royals’ recent long-term contracts, which have typically been backloaded.

But this is also what baseball people call a highly moveable deal — it includes no trade protections.

The Royals and Merrifield are positioning this as a long-term marriage, for the player to be one of the faces and driving forces of the next push. In a perfect world, that’s how it’ll go.

But the world is not perfect, and the Royals had some leverage here with four years of club control through the arbitration process so they were able to retain roster and payroll flexibility.

Merrifield has been worth an average of $25.3 million on the open market the last three seasons, according to calculations by FanGraphs. Even accounting for the imperfections of those calculations and some regression as Merrifield enters his 30s, there is very little chance he won’t be a bargain at the end of the contract.

Merrifield was already one of the game’s more valuable assets. The contract makes him even more valuable, and easy to trade.

He becomes, then, a potential solution to virtually any problem the Royals might face.

Best-case scenario, Merrifield continues to be one of the league’s better players, a mainstay at the top of the order who is an above-average defender and consistent presence on the bases.

If Nicky Lopez develops, but Hunter Dozier doesn’t, then Merrifield can play third. If Dozier develops, but Jorge Bonifacio doesn’t, then Merrifield can play right and Jorge Soler is the DH. If Alex Gordon isn’t with the Royals once his contract expires after this season, Merrifield could be a good left fielder.

Or — and this is the flexibility the Royals amplified with the contract — if the Royals’ development takes off, or they need reinforcements, Merrifield can be flipped for a pitcher or prospect.

This is a good deal for everyone.

Merrifield gets security in the guaranteed salaries. The Royals get cost-certainty now and later, with the added bonus of a piece they can trade.

So, yes. Merrifield’s rise is a story that will justifiably be used as inspiration in the minor leagues for years. And this contract is a move that the Royals will be happy about for years, no matter what.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.