SURPRISE, Ariz. — Last July when Whit Merrifield entered the MLB All-Star Game at Progressive Field in what was undoubtedly a benchmark moment for his career, he took over for Mike Trout as the American League's center fielder.
The irony of the moment was that Merrifield started less than a third of his games in center last season. His defensive versatility has always been one of his biggest assets, and it's caused Merrifield to constantly bounce around from one position to the next.
In recent years, he's focused less on his outfield play. But Merrifield enters this season knowing his one of his primary positions, at least to start the season, will be center field. He came into spring training with a renewed emphasis on his outfield defense.
"I feel like I earned the second base job the last few years," Merrifield said. "Probably through my own fault, I assumed that's where I'd be. But the dynamic of the team is constantly changing, and I understand what I can bring to a team. So I need to do a better job of staying more prepared in different positions. I think I've done a good job of that this year."
Last season, Merrifield started 73 games in the outfield and 80 on the infield. The majority of his starts as an outfielder, 53, came in right field and he started just 16 times in center field. Meanwhile, 76 of his 80 starts as an infielder were at second base.
He moved to the outfield on a nearly full-time basis midway through last season when the Royals called up infielder Nicky Lopez from Triple-A Omaha.
Despite playing five positions in 2018 and 2019, Merrifield hasn't allowed it to negatively affect his offensive production. He led the majors in hits the past two seasons, the first right-handed hitter to do so since Kirby Puckett in 1988-89.
Last season, he also set career highs for hits (206), runs (105), triples (10), extra-base hits (67), slugging percentage (.463) and OPS (.811) on top of playing in all 162 games.
"I take pride in playing multiple positions, but not just doing it, not just being able to be thrown out there," Merrifield said. "But doing it at a high level. Obviously, it's tough to do when you're not there every day, but it's a challenge that I'm ready to take on and hopefully continue to get better at each position."
A Southeastern Conference all-defensive team selection as a sophomore at South Carolina, Merrifield said he feels comfortable at either position and center field still feels natural for him.
This offseason, he started his throwing program earlier in an attempt to "get back" the outfield arm he once had with that extra carry on the end of his throws.
As Merrifield sat at his locker explaining the difference in his offseason training, seven-time Gold Glove left fielder Alex Gordon, standing at his locker directly to Merrifield's left, playfully chimed in, "Be honest. You should be in left. I should be in center. That's what we should really be talking about."
As an infielder Merrifield, 31, often threw from second with more of a side arm motion and quick release. His main concern was getting the ball out of his hands quickly.
In the outfield, he'll look to slow himself down, make sure he gets the ball, gets his feet in right direction and makes a strong, accurate throw even if that means taking an extra second and an extra half-step.
"Really it's just about getting reps where I feel like I need to get reps, whether it's reads off the bat, whether it's double play turns, throws from the shift, whatever it may be," Merrifield said. "That's really all it's about, repetition. It's hard to simulate game reps, so when I'm in the game I'm going to try to tell the pitcher to get me some action I guess."
Royals manager Mike Matheny has deferred to Merrifield in regard to finding the right balance in his daily workload, and they've alternated his positions in spring training games thus far.
"That's been the conversation for spring training so far, you tell me, Whit, what is it that you need to feel good about either place," Matheny said. "That's where we are right now. He's been really good about, 'Hey, I'd like this many days of just some work with (Rafael Belliard). I want to work on turning two. That's the one thing I want to make sure I feel really good about.'"
With the left-handed hitting Lopez slated to start at second base, Merrifield may get called upon if Matheny decides to sit Lopez against a tough left-handed starting pitcher.
The Royals also feel that playing second will give Merrifield a break from some of the demands of playing center in cavernous Kauffman Stadium on a daily basis.
Right now, it's primarily those two positions that the Royals need Merrifield to remain sharp. Matheny added the caveat, "I like improving defense late, if we can."
It won't be a surprise if Merrifield moves to either left or right field in late innings to improve the team's overall defense.