By all accounts, Whit Merrifield wanted badly to be part of the Kansas City Royals’ next contending team. Instead, he’s the latest veteran traded away to make way for the new core of young players the Royals hope to build their next contender around.
The catalyst atop the Royals lineup for most of his tenure, a versatile defender and a two-time All-Star, Merrifield has been one of the faces of the major-league club in recent years who set the franchise’s standard as an iron man. will wear another organization’s uniform for the first time in his career.
The Royals completed a trade that will send Merrifield to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for infielder Samad Taylor and right-handed pitcher Max Castillo on Tuesday, shortly before the MLB trade deadline.
Merrifield declined, through the Royals communications department, to speak to reporters in Chicago after the trade had been announced.
Castillo, 23, has a 3.05 ERA in 20 2/3 innings pitched in nine games (two starts). Castillo started against the Royals in Toronto last month. He will be sent to the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate in Omaha. Taylor, 24, batted .258 at Triple-A Buffalo in 70 games.
Merrifield’s versatility, having started games at every position except pitcher, catcher and shortstop, and a team-friendly contract made him a strong trade candidate for several years.
Annually, there had been swirling trade rumors surrounding Merrifield and potential suitors. This time the Royals pulled the trigger.
“I think it’s more of a reflection of where our organization is right now,” Royals general manager J.J. Picollo said. “There’s depth coming from behind Whit that allows us a little more freedom to make moves moving forward. So that was a main contributor.
“The last couple years. We can call them transition if we’d like to. But his versatility, whether it was second base, the outfield, all the things that he could do for us always allowed us to have flexibility to give opportunity to guys who were ready to play in the major leagues. Now, we’re at a point in our system with a long of young players that the competition is getting tighter. And we just looked to capitalize on a player that had value in this game. We felt like we were able to do so today.”
Merrifield, 33, originally signed a four-year contract prior to the 2019 season. That deal was worth a guaranteed $16.25 million and included a fifth-year option for 2023.
In April, the Royals exercised their club option on Merrifield for 2023 and added a mutual option for 2024. The restructured contract made Merrifield’s salary $7 million this year and $2.75 million next season with $4 million in potential escalators based on him staying healthy.
The 2024 mutual option is $18 million or a $500,000 buyout.
A two-time major-league hits leader as well as a stolen base champion, Merrifield also set the Royals franchise record for consecutive games played with 553, a streak that began in June 2018 and snapped because of a toe injury on July 11.
In 2019, Merrifield became the second right-handed batter to lead the majors in hits in back-to-back seasons along with Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett (1988-89).
Merrifield also became the first player, regardless of handedness, to lead the majors in hits in back-to-back seasons since Ichiro Suzuki (2006-10). The only other Royals player to lead the majors in hits in consecutive seasons is Hall of Famer George Brett (1975-76).
Merrifield was the American League Gold Glove at second base last season, his only full season as the everyday starter at that position.
“He’s done some really impressive things in this uniform,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “I’m grateful for how this guy competed and how he continued to show up every day to play the game hard. Just watching what a game changer he was (Monday) on both sides of the ball, knowing all this has been going down, I’ve got a lot of respect for how guys stay focused on playing the game when there’s so much being thrown around. And there has been for years with Whit.”
A ninth-round draft pick out of South Carolina in 2010, Merrifield became a fan favorite for his hard-nosed approach, ability to play everyday despite physical ailments, his all-around performance and his willingness to embrace a leadership role on the field, in the clubhouse and in the media.
Merrifield spent six seasons in the minors before making it to the majors and has spoken in the past about how he nearly gave up on professional baseball before breaking through in the majors.
His debut in the majors with the Royals came after the franchise’s back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015 and the championship in 2015. Those postseason runs energized the fan base and the region.
He was part of just one .500 team in seven seasons, and endured back-to-back 100-loss campaigns.
In recent weeks, Merrifield took criticism for comments he made surrounding not being able to travel with the team to Canada for a series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Merrifield was one of 10 Royals players who were not allowed to enter Canada because they were not vaccinated against COVID-19.
While teammates and members of the Royals organization expressed no ill will against Merrifield in the aftermath of those comments, he was even booed at Kauffman Stadium for the first time in his career.
Picollo said the controversy caused by those comments were not a factor in the decision to trade Merrifield. He said he thought the Royals’ actions showed how it did not affect their decision because they could’ve traded him quickly and not take it down to the last hour of the trade deadline.
The irony of the trade is that the Toronto franchise traded for Merrifield. It’s not clear whether he has given any assurance to the Blue Jays that he’ll get vaccinated.
Despite the criticism, swirling trade rumors that had become an annual occurrence and a lingering toe injury that stopped his consecutive games played streak, Merrifield performed at a high level right up until his last day with the club.
After a dreadful offensive start to the season that included a slash line of .135/.177/.164 through the first 26 games, Merrifield turned his season around at the plate over the next 68 games (through the end of July) and slashed .280/.333/.415.
“I’m grateful for how he went about it and grateful for how he has handled a lot of different things,” Matheny said. “It’s been challenging here lately, and I feel that he has gone about it like a pro in that clubhouse with his teammates. I wish him nothing but the best moving forward.”
Gallagher traded, too
Shortly after completing the Merrifield deal, the Royals traded catcher Cam Gallagher to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Brent Rooker.
This story was originally published August 2, 2022 8:07 PM.