Philadelphia Phillies finally add a significant new player (with two asterisks)

That’s right. As the Philadelphia Phillies fan base settles down from the initial excitement of Whit Merrifield’s signing, they’ll notice the asterisks. Plural.

Wild Card Series - Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins - Game One
Wild Card Series - Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins - Game One / David Berding/GettyImages

It’s indisputable, of course, that new Phillies infielder Whit Merrifield is a two-time MLB hits leader and a three-time AL stolen base champion, but there are still two qualifiers to the clear positives in the Phils snagging a versatile, professional hitter (pending a physical).

The first is that all the positions that Merrifield would be trusted to play – second base and the outfield positions – are currently occupied by solid Phillies incumbents. So, in fact, are first and third base. The reality is that second base and center field are where Merrifield has largely played recently. In those slots, the Phillies have Bryson Stott, a rising star, and Johan Rojas, who is supposedly competing for his outfield position.

However, the reality is that Philadelphia doesn’t want to discourage Rojas by clearly indicating -- and certainly not since Merrifield reached a contract agreement -- that the newest Phillie is competing with Rojas, because the young Dominican speedster has Gold Glove potential, and has been working hard all winter to add muscle and improve his hitting. Nonetheless, Merrifield is a hedge against Rojas faltering more than anything else.

And this brings us to a modest sub-asterisk: Merrifield has not started a game in center field since Sept. 4, 2022. The huge majority of his outfield time with Toronto last season was in left. Make of that what you will. He has played center well in the past.

Well, yes, you might say, but what about the other spots Merrifield can play? Surely the starters will need breaks. This is true, and principal among them is likely to be left fielder Brandon Marsh, who will be recovering from minor knee surgery for a while. However, Marsh claims he’s right on track for Opening Day.

Don’t look for Merrifield to share time anything like evenly with Bryce Harper at first, Stott at second, or Alec Bohm at third. It says here, though, he might spell Nick Castellanos in right since he can be streaky.

Onto the second main asterisk. While Phillies fans are now being treated to speculation about whether J.T. Realmuto will begin to decline in effectiveness at the age of 33, it must be pointed out that Merrifield is 35.

“Two-hit Whit” can definitely hit. He has averaged 182 hits per 162 games for his career, and many players can only dream about that. In the COVID season, 2020, he played in all 60 games and had 70 hits. However, as Scott Lauber notes, “He has been closer to a league-average hitter for the last three years.”

In Philly, Merrifield will have a different role than he has in the past, and no one can predict how that will affect him as a hitter. Nor can we tell how sitting on the bench might affect his base-stealing capabilities, even given that he is the proverbial “savvy veteran.” In his age-34 season, he stole 26 bases in 145 games.

The Phillies have extremely high hopes for Merrifield. He’s not a guaranteed vital team cog, but he’s now with a team that has needed perhaps only one more such player to put them over the top for two straight years.