Editor’s note: This piece is part of a reoccurring blog on Kansas City sports from FOX4 producer Mike Wilson.
By now, you’ve heard the reports of the Royals reaching a new contract agreement with Whit Merrifield. While at first glance, it seems like a win for both sides, I’d argue one side did a bit more “winning” than the other.
The deal guarantees Merrifield $16.25 million over his final pre-arbitration and three arbitration years. It also includes a team option covering one year of Merrifield’s free agency at $10.5 million.
In total, with bonuses and escalator clauses, the deal could pay out nearly $32 million, though that seems unlikely.
Let me make it abundantly clear: I understand why Merrifield signed this contract with the Royals.
As a former 9th-round selection, he didn’t get a large signing bonus. And after toiling in the minor league for below minimum wage, he now has a deal that provides truly life-changing money, no matter what happens with the rest of his major-league career.
At the same time, the deal seems a bit light for a player coming off a season where he led the league in hits and stolen bases.
Merrifield’s 2018 was worth 5.5 wins above replacement (WAR), good for 25th across Major League Baseball. It puts him in the company of such players as Nolan Arenado, Aaron Judge and Paul Goldschmidt. Admittedly, Merrifield’s skillset is different from theirs, but the value is the same.
He was unlikely to set any sorts of records in arbitration, but it seems Merrifield gave up a significant amount of money, perhaps as much as 30 percent of his ultimate contract, in exchange for a sense of financial security.
It’s becoming more commonplace in the majors these days. Teams have stressed payroll efficiency above all else in 2018.
Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two rare cases of elite players hitting free agency while in the primes of their careers, still remain unsigned less than three weeks until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training.
The simple truth is Merrifield was never going to get such a deal. He wouldn’t be a free agent until he’s 34 years old anyway, well past the prime playing years of a player, where he’s likely hoping for a one- or two-year contract that might offer more money per season.
There was also the risk before Monday’s agreement that Merrifield would get no contract at all from the Royals — no guarantees, nothing.
One injury, bad season, and it’s all over. It’s a harsh reality, but players hold no leverage in these situations because there are no year-to-year certainties.
This all comes at a time when Major League Baseball teams are posting record revenues.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see more teams signing players to contracts like these, players who’ve seen their salaries in the minor leagues and in the early goings of their MLB careers should they make it that far accepting below-market deals just to ensure they get something.
It looks to be this way at least until after the 2021 season, when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires. I suspect the Players Association will make a bigger push to assure its union members — minor leaguers, rookies and veterans alike — get a larger piece of the pie.