Closing Time: Whit Merrifield, king of the Royals

A Royal you can feel good about (AP)

Watching the Royals offense this year feels like a punishment. KC is last in the majors in runs, 28th in all three slash categories. It’s hard to imagine this was a World Series team just a couple of years ago.

Whit Merrifield can’t fix this mess on his own, but he’s at least become part of the solution.

Merrifield is a late bloomer, the type of player who doesn’t show up on prospect clipboards. He toiled for eight years in the bush leagues. He played a half-year in KC last summer, didn’t move the needle (.283/.323/.392) in his age-28 season.

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He’s taken a step forward this year. Although Merrifield has only played 36 games, he’s become the team’s best offensive player. A .294/.353/.484 slash is a good start, then mix in some category juice (six homers, six steals).

Some of the usual improvement metrics show up. Walks are up, strikeouts down. Merrifield has a plus line-drive rate in the majors.

It would be nice if manager Ned Yost read the Merrifield memo. The second baseman has slotted sixth or lower in every game since May 7. Perhaps Yost thinks Merrifield is producing because of this position, but at some point you need to get your better players in more-advantageous spots.

In any event, Merrifield qualifies at second base and outfield, and is free to add in 80 percent of Yahoo leagues. Good guy to grab.

• So the Astros are first in runs, first in average, first in OBP, second in slugging, second in ERA. That’s pretty good. Is it too soon to say the AL West is over? Houston has an 11-game lead over four ordinary teams. (He thinks it’s over. He thinks so. I think so, too.)

Houston had a block party in the final game at Minnesota on Wednesday, a 17-6 laugher. Get out the brooms. The Astros racked up six homers and 19 hits. Eight different players scored runs, eight different players drove them in. Enjoy your boxscore of goodness.

Miraculously, you can still buy into this roster, cheaply. Versatile outfielder Josh Reddick is owned in just 21 percent of Yahoo leagues. Classy veteran bat Carlos Beltran trades at 39 percent. A few of their pitchers also have low tags — Brad Peacock (lockdown in relief, intriguing if a little rocky in the rotation), James Hoyt (dreamy strikeout rate), Michael Feliz and Will Harris are widely available.

You’re probably sick of Lance McCullers talk, but we have to wonder if Houston’s expected runaway will lead to McCullers being carefully handled at some point. McCullers has an injury history and has never sailed past 160 innings as a pro. With Houston dreaming of a deep playoff run, will McCullers miss a turn here or there? Would any small malady turn into an automatic DL stint?

I get that it’s no fun to trade a breakout player when he, well, breaks out, but you might run into some eager bidders. I’m still very cautious with McCullers’s innings projection, and I think you should be trying to shop him.

• It looks like the Padres have gone back to their bullpen blueprint of choice, with Brandon Maurer the closer and Brad Hand the setup man. Maurer has three clean saves in the last four days, while Hand scored Wednesday’s win over the reeling Cubs. Make it a sweep for the Friars, while Chicago has lost six in a row.

Our buddy Andy Behrens has been pushing the Hunter Renfroe case in recent weeks, and I’ll offer some support. Renfroe was a hacking mess in April (two walks, 30 strikeouts), but he started drawing walks in May. That probably had a lot to do with a .255/.358/.511 run, with five homers and 17 RBIs. Renfroe is unclaimed freight in 69 percent of Yahoo leagues.

• Given the home-run happy context of today’s baseball, sometimes you can get a little numb to all the homers. But nonetheless, Oakland infielder Chad Pinder is vying for your attention.

Pinder clouted two homers in Wednesday’s win at Oakland, giving him five in his last 28 at-bats. A .286/.357/.698 slash should mark some lineup territory. Pinder is owned in just two percent of Yahoo leagues. Team Salfino has a curious obsession with Pinder, adding him, dropping him, and re-adding him in the same day. A good example of how co-ownership can work for you.

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