By DAVE SKRETTA
The Associated Press
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Royals could have paid versatile second baseman Whit Merrifield relatively little this year, then given him a series of one-year contracts accompanied by increasing pressure each season.
Instead, they chose to reward him for both his perseverance and play.
The sides agreed Monday to a $16.25 million, four-year contract that covers Merrifield’s years of arbitration eligibility; Merrifield gets $1 million this year, $5 million in 2020, $6.75 million in 2021 and $2.75 million in 2022. The Royals have a $10.5 million option for 2023 with a $750,000 buyout, and there are $2 million in performance bonuses.
“It’ll change my family’s life for the rest of our lives in that regard,” Merrifield said during a news conference at Kauffman Stadium. “It doesn’t really change anything for me on the field. I never started playing this game to be a millionaire. It’s not why I put on cleats. It was to compete.”
The 30-year-old was a late bloomer who didn’t break into the big leagues until 2016, when he was 27 years old. That means he still wouldn’t have been eligible for arbitration until next offseason, and that the Royals could have controlled his rights for several more years.
But after toiling all those years in the minor leagues, and often getting passed over in spring training, Merrifield emerged as a legitimate five-tool rock for the rebuilding Royals franchise.
He hit .304 with an American League-leading 192 hits and 45 stolen bases last season. He also hit 12 homers and with 60 RBIs while playing a solid second base defensively, and he’s capable of playing first base, third base and all three outfield positions.
“These are conversations we have internally quite often,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said Monday. “We spoke last year at the end of the season, and it’s a very easy conversation because of who he is, what he means to us, what he represents.”
Merrifield emerged as a fan-favorite in Kansas City, not only because of his dashing good looks but his gritty style of play. Moore even mentioned how his play reminded him of Pete Rose, whose own devil-may-care attitude made him one of the greatest to ever play the game.
“Everybody wants to compare, right? And I understand why we do that in this game,” Moore said. “But at the end of the day, Whit is unique. Every player is different, and we evaluated Whit based on his own merits. That’s it. That’s why we’re here today.”
Merrifield’s speed and defense also dovetail nicely with the approach Kansas City has taken to this season. The Royals signed fellow speedsters Chris Owings and Billy Hamilton while bringing back Terrance Gore, and the idea is to be both versatile in the field and daring on the base paths.
“We’ve got so many options with Whit, with Chris and Billy. We’ve got a lot of things we can do,” Royals manager Ned Yost said over the weekend. “We’re just going to try to keep it moving. They’re guys who can be proficient at a lot of different positions.”
There also could be some good-natured competition within the club.
Merrifield may have led the majors in stolen bases last season, but Hamilton tied for fifth with 34 for Cincinnati. Another of their teammates, Adalberto Mondesi, finished eighth in the majors with 32 stolen bases, even though he had half as many at-bats for the Royals last season.
“I’m sure that’s going to be (a competition) in the clubhouse for sure,” Gore said. “If we let Whit Merrifield lead the league in stolen bases, we’re not going to hear the end of it.”
Merrifield spent time recalling Monday where he was in his career just a few years ago, a career minor league ballplayer still waiting for his big break. There were long bus rides, uncomfortable hotel rooms and the dream of one day playing under the lights of Kauffman Stadium.
Now he’s assured of doing that every day for the next four years.
“I always hoped a day like this would come. I always thought if I got a chance I’d be successful at this level,” Merrifield said. “It’s the same game, you’re just playing on a bigger stage.”