Royals' future looks brighter thanks to Whit Merrifield

CHICAGO -- Are you familiar with Whit Merrifield, the Kansas City Royals' second baseman? If not, you probably should be.

Merrifield has become one of the more underrated producers in big league baseball because he seemingly emerged from nowhere. Drafted in the ninth round in 2010, three spots ahead of where the New York Mets nabbed pitcher Jacob deGrom, Merrifield began a methodical climb through the Royals’ system -- one that was, at the time he was drafted, the darling of prospect wonks everywhere.

After 716 minor league games, Merrifield finally made his major league debut on May 18, 2016, four months past his 27th birthday. Now, 15 months later, he’s a fixture atop the Royals’ lineup and one of the best players at his position.

“He’s worked himself into a very nice major league player,” manager Ned Yost said after the Sunday’s 14-6 win over the Chicago White Sox. “Very consistent. Does a nice job defensively.”

Don’t believe me or Yost? Take a trip to the FanGraphs leaderboards. Merrifield ranks fifth among second basemen in WAR and one of the guys ahead of him, Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez, is actually a third baseman who has played a lot of keystone this year because of Jason Kipnis’ injury woes.

Merrifield sports a well-rounded game. On that same leaderboard of second basemen, he ranks ninth in average, 13th in on-base percentage and fifth in slugging. He’s second in defensive runs saved. And, by FanGraphs’ base-running metric, he ranks ninth among all players when it comes to adding runs with his legs.

“He’s just a very solid all-around player,” Yost said. “Runs the bases well. Will give you a great at-bat. Has a little power and does a solid job defensively.”

Not bad for a guy that The Ringer’s Michael Baumann recently called “the next David Eckstein.” In fact, when I ran into team broadcaster Rex Hudler in the dugout before Saturday’s game, I asked him about the comparison. Hudler called Eckstein’s games when he broke into the big leagues with the Los Angeles Angels. Suffice it to say, I got an earful of enthusiasm and a fist-pump from the ebullient Hudler.

Merrifield had the best offensive game of his big league career in Kansas City’s pounding of the White Sox, going 3-for-6 with a homer, a triple and five RBIs. Needing a double to complete the first Royals’ cycle since George Brett did it on July 25, 1990, Merrifield fouled out to right with the bases loaded in the eighth. He admitted the feat, which he also nearly accomplished against the Detroit Tigers on May 29, was on his mind. It’s was on Yost’s, too.

“I was kind of hoping he’d do it today,” Yost said. “It’s kind of tough, you get in those situations with the bases loaded, it’s a little bit tougher. You’re lacking a double. If it were me, I’d be

busting my tail to second base no matter where the ball was hit. But with the bases loaded, the guy ahead of him is probably going to stop.”

Now that’s a players’ manager, one who appreciates the finer points of individual accomplishment.

“I’m going to get it one of these days,” Merrifield said. “With the game like it was, it was in my mind. I needed to hit a ball in the gap. I made a pretty poor swing on a hanging slider.”

Merrifield is actually in the same age range as players who comprised the Royals’ championship core, but he is really more representative of subtle second wave of talent that is helping keep the Royals competitive, especially this weekend when a recent losing streak had stretched to five games. But after a comeback win on Saturday and Sunday’s easy win, Kansas City’s ship seems to be righted.

“That was really big for us,” Merrifield said. “To come back and rally, hopefully that can kind of propel us forward and we can kind of go on a little run.”

Let’s jump back for a moment. The storyline of the 2017 Royals revolves around what many assume will be the last chapter for the core group that returned championship baseball to Kansas City. That wave of talent grew from the system Merrifield joined seven years ago. Faced with a decades-long postseason drought, general manager Dayton Moore oversaw the gradual build up of a farm system that eventually stirred some to call it one of the finest collections of minor league talent we’ve seen.

Prospect rankings don’t always correlate to championships won, but in the Royals’ case, “the process” -- as it came to be known -- paid off in the best possible way, culminating in two pennants and the 2015 World Series crown. Yet, many analysts see a prolonged rebuilding period coming up for the Royals. Mostly that’s because of skepticism that their free agents will stay, a group that includes Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. But it’s also because those former lofty prospect rankings slipped after that touted group graduated to the majors and recent high draft picks so far haven’t panned out.

Yet, if you look at Sunday’s lineup, with Merrifield batting leadoff, rookie Jorge Bonifacio in right field and Cheslor Cuthbert at third base, that’s three positions held down by post-process products of the system. Bonafacio ranks 17th among rookies in WAR this season. And Cuthbert, who has battled injuries this season, capably filled in for Moustakas last year and looks like a big league regular.

Meanwhile, the club still has Raul Mondesi finishing off his development in Triple-A, where he has a .873 OPS at age 21. While he has struggled so far in 198 big league plate appearances, the more important fact is that Mondesi has already reached the game’s highest levels at such a young age.

Also, don’t forget that Alex Gordon remains under contract and if he ends up needing to replace Cain in center field, his game-ending robbery of a potential Nicky Delmonico home run shows he can handle the defensive part of that job down just fine. Yost joked that Gordon always want to play center field anyway.

“[Cain] obviously does a great job, so I just try to do the best I can when I’m out there,” Gordon said. “Seems like it just happens kind of quick. You don’t have to time think about it. I took a good route. It felt pretty easy.”

Not for nothing: Franchise catcher Salvador Perez and top starter Danny Duffy are also locked up for the foreseeable future.

The point is that even if the Royals lose their free agents, there is a solid base of talent still on hand and the notion that they needed to tear down completely earlier this season, when they started 10-20, might have been wrong-headed. (I have to admit to being one who called for such a thing.) Any core talent lost will need to be a core talent replaced, and if Kansas City does indeed lose all their free agents, it will be tough for them to be replaced via free agency.

But the reason it might be wrongheaded to assume the Royals are headed for a dark age isn’t because they might actually end up winning the bidding wars for one or more of their free agents -- and they might -- but also because of what the emergence of players like Merrifield, Bonafacio and Cuthbert conveys. That is, Moore’s system does a pretty solid job of churning out useful position players who play fundamentally sound baseball.

The Royals will still have to identify core talents through the draft, but development is important, too, and it sure seems like the systems the Royals have in place are working pretty well. That will all sort itself out in the months to come. For now, the Royals will focus on the time they know they still have together and for what they hope will be another postseason run.

But the last run? Maybe not.