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The Monday Rant: Whit Merrifield And Windows

Trade Deadline Season is upon us, and that means Whit Merrifield Trade Rumor Season has arrived as well. And there is no shortage of rumors again this year.

This hasn’t been the best season for the Royals All-Star second basemen. This is his lowest OPS+ (96) since his 2016 rookie season, his slugging percentage was under .400 in mid-June, and his 43.3% ground ball rate is 7 percentage points lower than it was a season ago.

Is this the start of the aging decline? I don’t think so, but there is at least cause for concern.

The real reason Merrifield is being talked about in trades isn’t his play, or his declining play on the field however, but the idea that the Royals “window” for being a playoff contender isn’t for another couple years, so trading an older asset like Merrifield now is the right thing to do. Same as 2020. Same as 2019. Same as 2018.

I’ve never been a big believer that windows exist the way MLB teams want to pretend they do. I’ve written in the past how silly it is, and how incredibly difficult it would be, to build a team around nothing but 22 to 24 year-olds all coming up at the same time, all within the first few years of their contacts.

If you believe the way organizations talk about winning you’d think there was some magical opening of the cosmos that allows only certain franchises to be good, competitive teams based on specific flips of the calendar. Preparing your organization for the chance that you’re going to have 20 players on your roster all come up within the same three-year span is flawed thinking.

But Scobes, you say, that’s how the Royals did it before.

Sure, and that’s fine, but don’t look at the past — no matter how recent — as the only way anything in baseball can be done, simply because that’s how it was done before.

The same thing holds true with aging curves and older prospects. Just because one can put a spreadsheet together that says players decline after the age of 30, doesn’t mean that it must be absolute truth. It’s just what was.

The data is also compromised by decades of players training based on now-outdated nutritional, scientific, and technological norms. For most of Major League Baseball’s history, players didn’t even play baseball as a full-time job, so there’s no way you can draw a firm conclusion that players will begin to decline after the age of 30. Training methods have changed too much from what they once were.

What we know of windows, or what we think we know of windows, is about to be thrown on its head with how rapidly players will develop because of the advancements we’re seeing across the game. Launch angle plus exit velocity optimization is completely changing hitter profiles from forgotten prospects to Top 100 guys (Nick Pratto) and late-20s outcasts to impact major league bats (Mike Yastrzemski).

It’s why I contend this is the golden era of baseball. Organizations are churning out 98-mph-plus relievers with regularity. Going into a season taking a flier on Wade Davis and Greg Holland will look foolish in the near future.* More hitters than ever before are having break out years after having lost all semblance of status in their careers like Patrick Wisdom, Yastrzemski, or even the Royals’ own Pratto and MJ Melendez.

Rapid development is going to start to become commonplace; the key will be which organization unlocks it first. (It will be the Reds)

* — Or better yet, the Davises and Hollands of the world will adapt to new throwing programs and technologies that hold their skills longer into their careers or improve their skills altogether. Something once only thought possible with the aid of performance enhancers.

Which is why I understand Dayton Moore’s reluctance to trade Whit Merrifield. 

In Merrifield, the Royals have a proven major league All-Star who can play multiple positions, has led the league in hits and steals multiple times, and, most importantly, has played a whole hell of a lot of professional baseball games. That trait alone to an organization that’s “rebuilding” in the middle of a pandemic that caused an entire season of minor league games to be lost cannot be understated. 

And it’s because of that experience that I understand why Moore, if Merrifield is to be traded, is going to ask for the moon. He should.

One, because why the hell not? And two, because next year’s team looks to have a rookie in Bobby Witt Jr., a rookie in Pratto, a rookie in Melendez, a rookie in Kyle Isbel, near rookies in Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar, and whoever else makes that rapid development leap. 

Moore has always said he believes winning is the best development tool, and I agree. Winning is a skill not unlike any other skill learned on a baseball field. You cannot just expect to throw a bunch of talent onto the field and think the talent will do the work of winning.

No. Winning is learned. 

While there may be a desire to look toward the future and a possible “window” two to four years from now, keeping Merrifield to help the team win next year is not completely out of line. His value to the Royals in helping to win games and his inexpensive contract may far outweigh the type of return he would bring from an industry that still views a 32-year-old as a declining player.

Good players are never bad to have around. Aging curves don’t exist like we’ve always thought they did, and windows can rapidly open given the right organizational development in place. 

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