When Whit Merrifield finally arrived with the Royals last season, it was with deep appreciation and a sense of mystery ahead.
As a ninth-round pick in 2010 who still wasn’t on the 40-man roster as the 2016 season began, after nearly six full years in the minor leagues, there had been nothing inevitable about his major-league debut.
Nor did he have any blueprint of what awaited him.
“Last year, I was trying to figure out where the kitchen was, where the training room was,” he said. “Had a lot of things going on.”
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That soon came to include hitting .360 in his first 12 major-league games and setting a franchise record with hits in his first 11 career starts — all at a time when the Royals were faltering offensively with three All-Stars out injured.
That energy, part of the “it” factor Merrifield exudes, made him an instant fan favorite.
A season in which he hit .283 with 27 multihit games and 22 doubles in 81 games made him a candidate to solve the revolving door at second base in 2017 … or at least contribute somehow among the seven positions he can play.
None of which mattered when it came to the Rubik’s roster maneuvers the Royals were faced with at the end of spring training.
Considerations that included the pump-priming of still-raw Raul Mondesi at second base relegated Merrifield to Class AAA Omaha.
This was a sock in the gut to Merrifield, even if he understood it intellectually and might have surmised he’d be called up before long.
Imagine yourself highly qualified for a job, or a promotion, and being passed over.
You can be angry. You can be hurt.
But … then what?
“I tried to not sulk on it,” he said, “and just go.”
And then some.
“Guys are motivated by a lot of different things, whether it be money or fame or whatnot,” he said. “But I’ve always been motivated to kind of prove people wrong. So there was definitely a chip I put on my shoulder.”
So Merrifield hit .412 with three home runs in nine games with the Storm Chasers to make himself essential to a Royals team sputtering at the plate.
And here he was against San Francisco on Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium, hitting a home run in his second at-bat to produce their only run in a 2-1 loss in 11 innings.
His play was “exactly what we’re looking for,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
Starting in right field, Merrifield was on base four times — including walking in the ninth and singling in the 11th, only for Mondesi to strike out both times with two men on.
This time around, Merrifield felt like he had returned to where he belongs.
“It felt like home,” he said. “It felt good to be back home and back out there and competing with my brothers.”
His grand return made for a stark contrast with the struggles of the presently overmatched Mondesi, 21, who is hitting .114 but is seen by the Royals as a potential future pillar who needs to play through this to grow.
“I mean, we can talk about (Mondesi) ’til we’re blue in the face,” Yost said. “We were 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position. We pick up one of those runs, and we’re not even talking about (him).
“So in the big scheme of things, Mondi’s not the problem.”
That’s true if you consider all the other regulars struggling, particularly Alex Gordon (.192 batting average) and Eric Hosmer (.200), whose combined home runs (one, by Hosmer) Merrifield matched in two at-bats. And designated hitter Brandon Moss is hitting .147.
But if Mondesi isn’t the problem, he also is not now part of the solution.
And that looms larger with so many key players set to hit free agency after the season — leaving the clock ticking on personnel decisions, if not dilemmas, the Royals stand to face at midseason.
At some point, the Royals will have to have to reconcile whether the future is now or, in fact, the future, whether they are playing in the here and now or for potential.
This may or may not mean that Merrifield would be the best alternative at second base whenever Jorge Soler recovers from a strained oblique muscle and takes over in right field.
Time enough for Merrifield — and Mondesi — to make that case in the next few weeks.
For now, though, Merrifield has a broader point to make:
However you deploy him, this is where he should be.
Because he makes the Royals a better team. Right now.