For as long I’ve been writing about baseball, Whit Merrifield has never failed to appear on a list of potential trade targets. He’s never been dealt, though, as the Royals preferred to hold onto their speedy, contact-orientated infielder — that is, until now. Past the peak of his powers, Merrifield is finally headed elsewhere — Toronto, to be exact, which acquired him for prospects Samad Taylor and Max Castillo.
The Blue Jays didn’t need to trade for Merrifield, though in hindsight, he’s a pretty good fit. Santiago Espinal has handled second base for most of this season, but a 95 wRC+ isn’t marvelous, and he’s had a crummy July on top of that. Chances are the Jays will alternate between Espinal and Merrifield there, and if the former continues to trend downward, they now have a clear Plan B. In addition, the right-handed Merrifield is also capable of handling a corner outfield spot on a team whose backup outfielders (Cavan Biggio, Raimel Tapia, and Bradley Zimmer) are all lefties. Versatility is great! Toronto now has more of it than before.
It’s a little weird to imagine Merrifield in a depth role, but right now, his bat just doesn’t have enough thump; through 95 games this season, he’s hitting a career-worst .240/.290/.352 (80 wRC+). Granted, that’s partially due to a slow start, so maybe he can bounce back. The projections think it’s possible, but the warning signs persist: He’s hitting fewer line drives than ever, with weak grounders and fly balls taking their place, though his plate discipline is still intact.
If the return for a name like Merrifield appears light, consider the fact that not only is he 33 years old but also in the midst of an offensive slide dating all the way back to 2019. From a trade value perspective, the one aspect that worked in the Royals’ favor is his contract, which keeps him on the Blue Jays for an additional year. It’s also dirt cheap, even for a diminished version of Merrifield. As a result, the Royals are collecting not just one, but two prospects with legitimate intrigue. These aren’t just warm bodies used to package trades, in other words.
The first is Taylor, a statline scout darling. He had himself a dashing breakout in Double-A last season, with 16 bombs, 30 stolen bases, and a .294/.385/.503 slash line, but take caution. The underlying power numbers don’t support a genuine surge, and his swing decisions are troublesome; look no further than the 29.4% strikeout rate that looms over his scintillating triple slash. Nonetheless, the speed is real, and Taylor can handle five positions. In tandem with his decent feel for hitting, his tools are enough to guarantee him a place on a big league roster — think a 1 WAR role player.
The second is Castillo, who I like a lot upon closer examination. He has a short, snappy arm action that concerns me a bit, but it likely adds a good amount of deception to his repertoire. For example, here’s a fastball he threw against Javier Báez earlier this season:
Going against the grain, Castillo’s heater features a heavy amount of tail, which you can see on full display. That won’t let him miss too many bats, but it will let him induce enough weak contact to compensate. It passes the eye test, has worked for him so far in the majors, and grades fairly well on stuff models. Besides the fastball, he relies on a upper-80s changeup that he commands exceptionally well; it’s probably his best pitch overall. An established fastball-changeup tandem means Castillo is one of the safer pitching prospects around — he’s already a viable reliever — but the Royals would need to oversee the development of his slider if they plan on him starting games.
With the player summaries complete, there’s an elephant in the room I wish I didn’t need to address but is breathing down my neck, so here goes. Is Merrifield legally allowed to enter the country of Canada? It’s absurd that this question needs to be asked, but as we know all too well, a recent three-game series between the Blue Jays and Royals revealed that he had not been vaccinated for COVID-19, which is required for entry into Canada. Toronto has given a Merrfield a shot, yes, but can it give him the shot?
As of this writing, there’s been no confirmation of Merrifield’s vaccination status. In an interview, Jays GM Ross Atkins declined to comment further on the matter, saying he would let Merrifield discuss it with his family. Based on the fact that he circumvented a simple yes/no question, it seems like the Blue Jays acquired Merrifield before confirming whether or not he would agree to a vaccine. If so, it’s a move that reeks of irresponsibility. I’m no GM, but I’d want my deadline acquisition to appear in front of the home crowd and not skip half the remaining games. It’s not as if the prospect of a U.S.-only Merrifield was accounted for in the acquisition cost, either. Parting with two 40 FV prospects for a utility bat, albeit an established one with bounce-back potential, is not a bargain.
For what it’s worth, when Merrifield did miss out on that earlier trip to Toronto, he told reporters that “the only reason that I would think about getting [the vaccine] at this point is to go to Canada…. Something happens and I happen to get to a team that has a chance to play in Canada in the postseason, maybe that changes.” Those comments didn’t endear him to Royals fans (or his own general manager), but it does sound like someone who would hopefully get his shots now that the situation has shifted.
There are a few other concerns regarding Merrifield, including an alarming dip in his defensive metrics, but the priority here is getting him into Canada. Hopefully the Blue Jays have a plan; otherwise, I’d prefer not to think about the ensuing logistical nightmare. As for the Royals, they’ve at last traded Merrifield. It’s a few years late, sure, but as they say, better late than never.