Chicago Cubs rumors of huge free agent acquisitions may be dominating headlines, but a trade may be the most important move the team makes this offseason.
Even before they were eliminated in the National League Wild Card Game, Chicago Cubs rumors had linked them to signing Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in free agency. While both of those players would make a significant impact in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup, a trade with the Kansas City Royals may be nearly as valuable.
Through his first two and a half seasons at the MLB level, Whit Merrifield has slashed .293/.342/.437 with a 162-game average of 14 home runs, 70 RBI, and 37 stolen bases.
The Cubs haven’t had a proven leadoff hitter since Dexter Fowler packed his bags after the 2016 season, and Merrifield would be the perfect fit for that role. He served as the primary leadoff hitter in Kansas City in each of the last two seasons, with nearly 77 percent of his plate appearances coming at the top of the lineup.
Over those two years, Merrifield’s production when hitting first has been one of the best in baseball. He ranks sixth in batting average, 17th in on-base percentage, fourth in stolen bases, and second in line drive rate among the 79 hitters with at least 200 plate appearances in the leadoff spot over that stretch.
The Cubs have had incredible depth at the middle infield positions with Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist, and Tommy La Stella on the roster over the last few years, but there may be a hole to fill heading into the 2019 season.
With Russell facing a 40-game suspension after accusations of domestic assault resurfaced in the season’s final month, it wouldn’t be surprising if he and the Cubs parted ways. If that’s the case, the Cubs could easily shift Baez over to shortstop and have Merrifield be the everyday starter at second base.
Acquiring Merrifield would be a great move if the Cubs do intend on making a run at Harper in free agency, as rumors have suggested for months.
If the Cubs could pull off a deal with the Royals and bring Harper to the North Side, the top of the order would look something like Merrifield, Harper, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Baez. You’d be hard pressed to find a more intimidating lineup anywhere else in the league.
Not only would Merrifield contribute with the bat, but he’s a plus in the field and on the basepaths too.
Over the last two seasons, Merrifield’s 13 Defensive Runs Saved at second base are the fourth most across the majors. He also is incredibly versatile and logged 241 innings in center field last season. In a pinch, Merrifield could man left field, right field, first base, and third base.
Merrifield also brings incredible value while running the bases. Over the last two seasons, he’s tallied 79 stolen bases, the fourth-most in MLB. His 45 swipes in 2018 led the league. The Cubs haven’t had someone steal that many bases since Juan Pierre nabbed 58 in 2006.
Now this plan is all contingent upon the Royals being willing to deal Merrifield. At the 2018 trade deadline, Royals GM Dayton Moore said the second baseman “certainly wouldn’t be traded.”
While the decision to keep Merrifield makes sense because he’s under team control for the next four years, it doesn’t make sense for a variety of other reasons.
First and foremost, the Royals are terrible. They finished the season with a 58-104 record, good for a .358 winning percentage – the second-worst mark in the league.
Second, this team is at the very beginning of a rebuild. They may be just 3 years removed from winning the World Series, but that core of players is gone. There’s not much talent remaining, and it’ll be a while until they have impact players coming up from the minors. In Keith Law’s preseason farm system rankings, the Royals came in at 27th. Plus, they have just one prospect on MLB.com’s Top 100 Prospect list.
Third, Merrifield will be 30-years-old on Opening Day. The team control is nice for a small market ballclub, but Merrifield doesn’t do much more than add a few wins to a franchise likely stuck in the basement of the American League over the next three or four years.
Merrifield won’t come cheap, but the Royals would be making a mistake in not trading him at the peak of his value. With the right offer, the Cubs could plant one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball at the top of the order for the next four seasons.
While his name value isn’t anywhere near the likes of Harper and Machado, his play on the field and ability to fill a much-needed role should put Merrifield near the top of the Cubs offseason acquisition list.