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Smash or Pass: Whit Merrifield

A likely free agent for the first time, Merrifield could provide a reliable option at a position that had a lot of volatility in 2023.

Toronto Blue Jays v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Welcome to Smash Or Pass, a new offseason series in which we’ll examine various free agents and trade targets to determine whether they make sense for the Red Sox. Today, we’re discussing Whit Merrifield.

Who is he and where does he come from?

His name is Whit Merrifield and was a late bloomer in the Kansas City Royals organization. A ninth-round pick in 2010 out of the University of South Carolina, he made his debut in 2016 for the Royals at the age of 27. In 2019, the Royals bought out his arbitration years and added an extra year (for 2023), before trading him to the Blue Jays at the trade deadline in 2022. After a year-and-a-half in Toronto, Merrifield will almost certainly be a free agent for the first time at the age of 35, since a return to the Jays would require both parties to exercise a mutual $18 million option, with a buyout of just $500K.

What position does he play?

Merrifield is a right-handed hitter who has played 718 career games at second base and 388 games in the outfield. In 2023 for Toronto, it was almost an even split. He made 87 appearances (70 starts) in the outfield, with 81 of those games being played in left field, while making 84 appearances at second base (67 starts).

Is he any good?

Well, he was an All-Star for the third time in his career in 2023, which is good. First and foremost, however, he is reliable. Merrifield set a franchise record in Kansas City, playing in 553 consecutive games before a toe injury in July of 2022 sent him for a minimum stay on the IL, the only notable injury in his eight-year career. He has had three seasons in which he logged more than 700 plate appearances.

Offensively, Merrifield has been a league-average hitter in his career with a 101 wRC+ (100 being average), which has declined to 90 over the past three seasons combined. He does not hit the ball hard, sitting in the bottom 3% of the Avg. EV/Barrel%/Hard Hit% triumvirate on Statcast, but has popped double-digit home runs in each season of his major league career (save for the short 2020 season, in which he hit nine and was on pace for a career-high). However, he is still a strong base stealer averaging 27.3 steals in those last three seasons, including going 26-for-36 on stolen base attempts in 2023 with an 81st percentile sprint speed at the age of 34. Merrifield has struck out just 15.9% of the time in his career.

Defensively, while he has the versatility to play the outfield, he’s a far better defender at second base at this point of his career. In 2023, Merrifield was 10th out of 42 qualified second basemen with +4 Outs Above Average. In the outfield, he was 103rd out of 126 with -4 OAA.

He’s a decent player on the back half of his career.

Tl;dr, just give me his 2023 stats.

145 G, 592 PA, .272/.318/.382, 11 HR, 67 RBI, 66 R, 26 SB, 6.1/17.1 BB/K%, 93 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR

Would he be a good fit for the 2024 Red Sox?

In 2024? Yes. Beyond? Probably not. The Red Sox have a plethora of middle infield prospects that are a year or two away, most notably shortstop Marcelo Mayer. Beyond Merrifield, the second base alternatives are an ugly scene.

Merrifield offers the Red Sox stability and health at a position that had absolutely none in 2023. Christian Arroyo lead the team with 51 starts at the position, followed by Enmanuel Valdez with 44, and no one else reached 25. Offensively, Boston’s second basemen this year combined for 0.4 WAR (26th in MLB), 13 HR (26th), 13 SB (24th), 87 wRC+ (20th). Defensively? Negative-14 Outs Above Average. Yikes.

Red Sox 2Bs Outs Above Average - 2023
Baseball Savant

What will he cost?

Merrifield will likely take a one or two-year deal this offseason, as a 35-year-old whose speed will almost certainly decline soon. Spotrac estimates his market value at $6.5M AAV, which feels low. I’ll guess that a 1 year/$12M deal could get it done, or 2-for-$20M.

Show me a cool highlight.

Merrifield had the walk-off hit that won the 2010 College World Series for the University of South Carolina. It looked like a lot of fun.

Smash or pass?

If the Red Sox spend big elsewhere, specifically on the starting pitcher market, I could see second base being a position that they try to piece together with the likes of Enmanuel Valdez, Pablo Reyes, and Ceddanne Rafaela. Luis Urias, who made $4.7M in 2023 and will likely get a salary bump in arbitration, doesn’t feel like the answer.

In a season where the MLB incentivized everyone to run more, the Red Sox only had two players with double-digit stolen bases in Jarren Duran (24) and Trevor Story (10) and they were only on the roster together for 13 days in mid-August. Whit Merrifield would have led the team with 26. I’ll smash — especially on a one-year deal — to bridge the gap to the kids.