How Whit Merrifield’s career year can carry over into 2018 for Kansas City

One of the most compelling players in all of baseball over the past two years has been Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield. (AP)

One of the most compelling players in all of baseball over the past two years has been Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield.

Not many All-Star caliber players make their debut at an old baseball age of 27, but if Merrifield continues to be more than just “2-hit Whit,” he could soon find himself at baseball’s mid-summer classic.

Merrifield’s had a very unique career leading up to semi-stardom at the big league level. Not a top prospect, the infielder never hit better than .270 at any minor league level in his first four professional seasons. Having played three years in college at South Carolina pushed back his professional development, and Merrifield didn’t reach AAA till age 25.

As far as prospects go, it’s a general rule that if a player hasn’t even tasted a cup of water in the big leagues by age 25, odds of them ever producing at a high level are pretty slim. They’re often considered organizational depth with potential to grow into a utility player or specialized baserunner or plus defender.

In 2014 Merrifield hit .340 in AAA over 76 games, but at age 26 took a step backward with just a .265 average in Omaha. This regression signaled that when Kansas City finally made the call up in 2016, with Merrifield at the age of 27, that his role was to be a Swiss army knife option off the bench for manager Ned Yost.

However, shocking scouts, media, fans and perhaps even the organization, Merrifield hit .283 as a rookie, totaling 88 hits over 81 games. The nickname “2-hit Whit” was born and the Royals had found someone who, at worst, could be a productive utility player.

While Merrifield burst onto the scene and became a fan favorite in 2016, a common misconception is that the success just continued over into 2017. For as surprising as his rookie campaign was, he still didn’t project out to more than just a fringe starter. He didn’t show hardly any power, speed or defensive range and some success could be attributed to pitchers not having the book on his tendencies.

Yet somehow, at age 28, at the game’s highest level, Merrifield suddenly stole more bases than in any season before, set minor/major league career highs in hits, triples and RBI’s and hit more than twice as many home runs than in any other professional season before.

Yes, in a park like Kauffman Stadium, bigger than any minor league stadium, facing the best pitching the game has to offer, Merrifield hit 19 home runs in one season. Shattering his previous single season high of nine.

“2-hit Whit” of 2016 was a nice story. Someone that provided an average on-base percentage for a team that valued other areas. But 2017 Whit showed signs of a potential All-Star.

Merrifield ranked in the top three among American League second basemen in hits, batting average and triples, top five in doubles, RBI’s and slugging percentage and led the entire American League in stolen bases.

All in just his first full season as a major leaguer.

The hype that Merrifield got in 2016, was deserved in 2017. He ranked as the third best player on the Royals in WAR, trailing just Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain.

Now with arguably the best two Royals players from last year gone, Merrifield has to produce again in his second full season. More of 2016 Whit and his eight stolen bases, two home runs and 72 strikeouts in 81 games will be a massive disappointment.

His batting average was just five points better in 2017, but it’s every other area that saw a jump in production. His strikeout total increased by just 16, despite playing in 64 more games, and he reached base nearly every three at bats.

Producing more than just singles is the key factor in 2018 if Merrifield wants to maintain great, not good, status.

Merrifield was a dramatically better player in every facet last season, a rarity at age 28, but perhaps a sign that there still was even more potential left to unlock. And if he can actually replicate that success again over the course of the season, the sky’s the limit for what Merrifield can accomplish.

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