Whit Merrifield, Apple of My Eye
The AL Central has been an uninspiring symbol of mediocrity and dullness to me. Pretty much a baseball personification of the Midwest itself. It’s an unfair characterization considering that they’ve been to the four times World Series since 2012. They have a lot of cool players, too! This division brought us prime Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Joe Mauer, and Zack Greinke!
The Central isn’t as fun as it used to be. All of those players have either left the division or have passed their peak as productive assets. But even with Eric Hosmer, Carlos Santana, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain (presumably) bidding farewell to the AL Central, there are still plenty of useful assets floating around.
The Indians are home to most of the top dynasty players in the division (which is expected when three-fifths of the division are rebuilding), housing Francisco Lindor, Corey Kluber, and stud catching prospect Francisco Mejia. But if you look closely, there’s a diamond in the rough manning the keystone in Kansas City.
Whit Merrifield is a player I used to confuse with Cheslor Cuthbert. I don’t have any excuse for this in hindsight. Cuthbert is a 25-year-old Nicaraguan 3rd baseman who made top-100 lists at Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus in 2012. Merrifield was drafted in the 9th round in 2010 and signed for $100,000, debuting in the bigs at 26 having never made a top-100 list. A year after playing a half-season as a super utility man where he played 2B, 3B, and corner outfield, Merrifield has settled in as the Royals’ starting second baseman and leadoff hitter.
Merrifield forced Ned Yost’s hand, slashing .288/.324/.460 in 145 games last year. Never a power hitter in the minors, Merrifield used the juiced ball to slug 19 home runs, transforming him from a slap-hitting speedster into a well rounded offensive contributor.
Merrifield helps you out on the basepaths, too. He led the American League with 34 steals (Trea Turner, Billy Hamilton, and Dee Gordon finished ahead in the NL). 34 steals might not seem like a lot for a leader, and, well it isn’t. The last time someone led their league with so few swiped bags was 1962, when Luis Aparicio paced the AL with 31. However, Merrifield’s skill shouldn’t be brushed aside.
Despite stolen bases trending down league-wide since 2011, the bar to clear to lead baseball in steals hasn’t changed with it. As a result, Merrifield’s 34 stolen bases are worth more today in fantasy than any year since 2005. He heads into next year ranked 19th in ESPN’s dynasty rankings for 2B after finishing 4th in their player rater, ahead of names like Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, and Anthony Rizzo (thanks, Joe!)
Merrifield can swing the stick, boosting his ISO 63 points last year while bettering his batting average, OBP, and strikeout rate. He has multi-positional eligibility and will be given the green light from the leadoff spot to steal as many bases as he wants. With the core of the lineup gone, runs scored might be hard to come by, but Jorge Bonifacio and Brandon Moss love to swing (and miss) which means less stolen base opportunities taken from Merrifield. He turns 29 in a month and missed the first 12 games of last season, meaning he should be able to expand on his stolen base totals while not seeing a major drop off in the 80 runs he scored last year.
Think of Merrifield as the poor man’s Jose Altuve. The carrying tool is the speed, but he throws in enough power to hit 30 doubles and 15+ home runs, pitching in a good enough average to make him an easy top-10 2B. I’d certainly take Whit ahead of names like Ian Kinsler, Kolton Wong, and Starlin Castro, all inexplicably ranked ahead of him by ESPN. Don’t underrate the value steals can give you in today’s dinger-rific game.