The buzz around trading Whit Merrifield is extensive with passion disproportionately allocated to the analytics-minded fans who are in favor of maximizing return for him and strengthening the team’s chances with their next wave of talent.
I understand that argument, and in principle, I agree with it. Teams should think pragmatically about how best to maximize the impact of their competitive windows. That means identifying when players have their most value and leveraging that value to open or keep open a window.
And Merrifield will never have more value than he does right now. With four years of team control, the athleticism to play multiple positions well and steal bases, and coming off a 5.5 bWAR season, Merrifield is sitting at his apex of value. He’s in what should be his peak offensive window, and as he ages his value as a versatile defender and baserunner will diminish.
Perfect. Makes sense. Trade Merrifield.
But here’s the problem. He has too much value. He’s too valuable. No team is going to be willing to give the Royals what Merrifield is worth.
Situations like this don’t come around very often, where players have breakout seasons as 28-year-old, second-year players, so we aren’t used to understanding how his contract situation, age, and performance value impact a rebuilding team. The fact that Merrifield has so many years of team control as an All-Star caliber player … at essentially 30 years old … is throwing the calculous off.
Think about it like this. In order to get a couple months of Ben Zobrist back in 2015, a player Merrifield is often compared to, the Royals had to give up Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks. Manaea was a first round pick and the Royals number three prospect at the time according to Baseball America. Brooks, though he has since flamed out, was a potential depth rotation piece and some thought might be a serviceable reliever. Zobrist had a 5 bWAR season in 2014 and was having a .8 bWAR season to that point in 2015. He was 34 years old and a couple months from free agency.
Can you see the imbalance? Merrifield is far more valuable than that because he’s only 30 (or will be in January) and he has four years of team control. If the Royals had to give up their number 3 prospect to get three months of Zobrist, what must another team need to give up to get four years of Merrifield? Two of their top five and a couple of lottery tickets? Three of their top ten and an organizational depth player? What team would be willing to do that for Merrifield who, while valuable, isn’t Mike Trout?
RFR’s Alex Duval wrote a piece recently with potential trade scenarios between the Royals and Astros for Merrifield, and while I found the players intriguing, I think it represents how Merrifield’s contract is undervalued in these discussions. He proposed a trade involving Cionel Perez and Myles Straw (ranked 5 and 14 respectively in the Astros farm system by MLB Pipeline). Both are good, intriguing prospects, and if Merrifield had a year of team control, I’d think that close to fair value, but he has four times that.
It’s the four years of team control that are driving up Merrifield’s value to a point I suspect many teams aren’t willing to go. If he had a year left before free agency, I imagine a team would be willing to give the Royals a similar deal they gave Oakland, and the Royals would gladly take it. But there’s a reason you don’t see trades for guys with tons of team control very often.
Now, consider it from the Royals point of view. They’ve got four years to trade him. And it seems like there is probably an intersection somewhere within that four years where his value matches what other teams are willing to give—probably not now, but maybe in a year, two years, three years. Who knows?
Of course, waiting carries risks. He could regress or get injured, and having him play for a losing team essentially wastes his value. But accepting a deal that is below value just to mitigate that risk isn’t necessarily the right thing to do either.
Merrifield’s value will only diminish from here, but it may need to diminish in order for teams to be willing to trade for him. The Royals would be wise to determine what his value is at each stage of the next four years and wait until someone is willing to meet it.
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