To rise to the top of the American League for two seasons in a row and to the top of the Major League Baseball heap last October, the Kansas City Royals relied on players who fit a prototype.
Versatile. Gritty. Aggressive at the plate. Get-the-job-done mentality.
The first three months of the 2016 season have seriously tested KC’s staying power because the Royals have gone – and will go – chunks of time without some of the major pillars.
What Kansas City has discovered during its recent growing pains, though, is that the team has another potential building block for now and the future in Whit Merrifield.
Losing Ben Zobrist in the offseason was a blow for the Royals, although he only played the second half of the season with KC. He was the quintessential glue guy, somebody that Ned Yost could plug into a variety of positions.
To be fair, Merrifield isn’t quite Zobrist 2.0 yet. But he has certainly flashed signs of being that kind of player – maybe with a few more bells and whistles included.
For all the time it took for Merrifield to break though and get the big-league call up after starring at South Carolina, he is certainly making up for lost time.
Since joining the parent club on May 18, Merrifield has swung at a .315 clip with 26 runs and 15 RBI in 39 games. He has started at second base, third base and in the outfield while hitting from the top of the batting order as well as the lower-third.
Much like Mikey from the old Life cereal commercials, the 27-year-old rookie has been willing to try just about anything he has been asked to do. That alone has made him an effective fit with the Royals in a spot where Zobrist would’ve been a natural.
(Photo by Scott Winters/ICON Sportswire)
Beyond that, though, Merrifield fits Kansas City’s MO offensively in that he is a fast, heady baserunner and is aggressive at the plate, often taking his hacks early in counts when he sees a pitch to his liking.
In those 39 games, Merrifield has walked only five times. That may seem like a detriment for most young hitters in most offensive systems. Not so much for the Royals, who have compensated for their lack of power by bucking trends with low walk and strikeout totals, instead putting the ball in play, relying on speed and daring and seeing how the defense handles it. That fits Merrifield’s style perfectly and vice versa.
The other element of Merrifield’s impact has been the perfect timing. Simply put, the Royals needed a shot in the arm emotionally and performance-wise when those aforementioned pillars started falling.
May 22 was a day that accentuated Merrifield’s value but not for the best of reasons. That day in Chicago, Kansas City veterans Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon smacked knee-to-knee as they chased a foul ball. Gordon missed a month with a broken bone in his wrist and Moustakas, after trying to gut out the pain, was diagnosed with a torn ACL three days later that ended his 2016 season.
Just like that, the Royals were down two former All-Stars and two of their defensive cornerstones. Merrifield was summoned from Triple-A Omaha to replace sputtering Omar Infante at second base, so that’s where his primary spot will remain. But he can move around and KC’s defense doesn’t suffer a bit, which helps Yost move other players in and out of the lineup as needed – finding the spark that Gordon and/or Moustakas could be counted on to light.
Lastly, bringing Merrifield up has given Kansas City another player with a quality that isn’t always measurable in numbers but one that the Royals have made a major ingredient of their success: Raw hunger.
Kansas City took a lot of years to get back among the American League elite, and a major part of the final impetus starting in 2013 came from players like Gordon, Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain – guys who had scratched and clawed through the minors and endured the roughest of times in the major leagues before they found some light at the end of the tunnel.
Part of that equation is missing for Merrifield because he is joining KC at the top level in the midst of the franchise’s renaissance. But five seasons climbing the minor-league ranks for a former college star can be plenty enough to test his mettle. A lot of players don’t endure that to get to the top rung of the ladder.
That’s where Merrifield is now, though. And the first impression he has made sure seems to indicate that the Royals have another budding under-the-radar star to build around for now and in the future.
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