Why the Cubs Shouldn’t Bet the Farm on Whit Merrifield
Rumors have persisted since the stretch run of the 2019 season that the Chicago Cubs have been interested in acquiring Whit Merrifield from the Kansas City Royals. In 2019, the one-time All-Star utility player led MLB in hits (206) and triples (10). In 2018, he led MLB in hits (102) and stolen bases (45). Merrifield also boasts a high career BABIP (.340) and, in theory, seems like just the type of table setter the Cubs could use ahead of their sluggers.
As of this writing, MLB insiders suggest Kansas City has been valuing Whit Merrifield like he is the equal of José Altuve of the Houston Ass-tros and demanding a surfeit of top-ranked prospects in return.
After the disappointing finish to the 2019 season, Cubs fans are begging for the front office to take action in order to make a championship run in 2020 and beyond. As it appears the Ricketts family is once again looking to cut payroll spending, any significant roster changes will likely have to come via trade. Acquiring Merrifield would be a major move that would improve depth in the outfield and middle infield.
However, meeting KC’s asking price for Merrifield would be a poor bargain for the Cubs, mainly due to his age. Merrifield was a late bloomer, making his MLB debut in 2016 at the age of 27. 2020 will be his age 31 season. As he continues to age past 30, Merrifield will lose the speed that allows him to beat out infield grounders as a contact hitter. His stolen base number for 2019 (20) was below half of his career high in 2018 (45). While the KC All-Star is projected to post 1.8 fWAR in 2020 by Steamer, that number is well below his 2.9 for 2019 and his career high of 5.2 in 2018. Notably, Steamer also projects his wRC+ for 2020 at 99, which is replacement-level.
When examining one of the more recent high-profile trades involving a player who had passed his age-30 season, Paul Goldschmidt, you can see that the players traded in return for the six-time All-Star first baseman (Carson Kelly and Luke Weaver) have posted more WAR combined in 2019 than the declining Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt’s offense declined considerably from his peak year of 2015. While he recorded an above-average OPS+ of 113 in 2019 and had some torrid stretches that helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the National League Central Division crown, the team will need to upgrade its pitching and get another big bat to avoid another embarrassing postseason series like the NLCS sweep by the Washington Nationals.
The loss of Kelly means that the Cards will have to look elsewhere for a replacement once Yadier Molina eventually retires, and Weaver was dominant for the Diamondbacks (152 ERA+, 9.7 K9) before his season was cut short by injury. The young starter has potential to be one of the top pitchers in the National League if he is able to fully recover. If Goldschmidt’s offensive production declines to replacement-level and the Cardinals fail to make the postseason in 2020, the trade could turn out to be a loss for St. Louis.
Over the last two years, the Cubs’ ability to make big moves has been hampered thanks to a farm system depleted by major trades made in 2016 and 2017, as well as the underperformance of highly-touted young players on the major-league roster like Albert Almora Jr. and Addison Russell who have consequently lost nearly all trade value. Betting the team’s remaining top prospects on an aging player like Merrifield whose production will certainly decline could very well position the team for another tank once the so-called “window of contention” expires after 2022, when core players like Kris Bryant and Javier Báez are eligible for free agency.
I don’t think exploring a deal for Merrifield should be entirely out of the question as he could serve as a replacement for Ben Zobrist, who is expected to retire or perhaps follow former manager Joe Maddon to Los Angeles. The Cubs would be better served to offer a major-league player such as Kyle Schwarber along with one top minor-league prospect and move on if KC continues to make unreasonably high demands.
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