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A deep dive into Oscar Mercado

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Who is the Indians’ minor league acquisition and when might we see him in Cleveland?

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The Indians added Leonys Martín and beat Minnesota on trade deadline day and their playoff expectancy on FanGraphs went from 99.4 to 99.8 percent. It’s not much — as written in these digital pages, the move was safe and cheap if not exciting — but it kept the needle moving in the right direction.

The deal that most interested me, however, came in just before the 4pm deadline, when all unconsummated trades turned to pumpkins, with the Indians and Cardinals swapping some minor league outfielders. It seemed a deal of little import — we only included it in our news and notes — but what if trading for Oscar Mercado was the Tribe’s biggest deal of the deadline?

Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but Mercado, as a prospect, seems like he may be poised to contribute soon. Mercado was a second round draft pick that nearly became “a forgotten prospect,” according to MLB.com, before he moved from shortstop to center in 2016. The move, however, revitalized his all-around game, including a 60-point spike in batting average, which led to a spot on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster. With his game overhauled, Mercado excelled at Double-A in 2017 to the tune of a .287/.341/.428 line, earning a promotion and proving to be no fluke, slashing .285/.351/.408 in Memphis this year. He has shown a little less pop in Triple-A, but his speed has not diminished and remains a big asset, as he’s swiped 31 bases this year.

After the trade, Mercado immediately became the number 14 prospect ranking in the Cleveland system per MLB.com. On the 20-80 scouting scale, MLB rates Mercado as an overall 45, which sets the bar for him at roughly a platoon player or fourth outfielder.

For more of an in-depth idea of what kind of player Mercado is, I spoke to MLB.com’s draft and prospect expert, Jim Callis (lightly edited for clarity).

Chris Davies: As a center fielder, someone who’s new to center, has Mercado found his full potential and is he ready to become a regular in the major leagues?

Jim Callis: I think the bat will determine if he’s a regular, defensively I don’t think there’s any issues. I saw him in the Arizona Fall League and he looked pretty good out there. He’s been playing there for more than 2 years and I think he looks pretty good there, so I don’t really have a question about him being able it defensively. I think it’s going to be more a case of what do you get out of him offensively: Does he hit enough? I think that’s ultimately going to determine whether he plays everyday.

CD: Mercado’s carried by his speed, what else in his offensive makeup could get him to the big leagues?

JC: I think he’ll definitely play in the big leagues, it’s just a matter of whether he’s a fourth outfielder or an everyday guy. He does a little bit of everything offensively, I don’t know if he does anything particularly well except for steal bases. He hits for average, I don’t think he’s an elite hitter, but he hits for decent average. He makes contact but doesn’t draw a ton of walks, if he drew more walks and had a better on-base percentage you’d feel better about that. He’s got some power, but it’s more gap power. I don’t think he’s going hit more than 12 home runs, he’s not going to hit for enough power to play every day on the corners. The key for him becoming a regular in the big leagues is if he can hit .280 or so -- like he has in AA and AAA -- and put up a .350 OBP, then I think he has a chance. If he slides, is more of an average hitter and hits like .260 at the big league level, I don’t know if he does enough other stuff that you have him in the lineup on a day-to-day level.

CD: Do you think he has a chance to get to Cleveland this year?

JC: I do. You look at how beat up their outfield is, so I think he would. He’s on the 40-man roster so I think for sure you’d see him in September and maybe before that depending on how the outfield situation shakes out.

CD: I know you deal more with the prospect side, but compared to Melky Cabrera or Rajai Davis, who he’d compete with, do you think he could provide the same level of production or better?

JC: Well, Melky’s more of a corner guy...if they call him up it’s because they need a center fielder, so Melky’s not going to stand in his way there. Davis is what, 37 years old? It’s not like he’s had regular playing time, it’s sporadic, but Rajai Davis is kind of having a Rajai Davis year with less power...Rajai’s putting up a .625 OPS, I think Mercado’s capable of that. Greg Allen got a shot and didn’t produce but I think he’s capable of that. They just traded for Martín, so I think it comes down to what Martín does. I suspect that he’ll get some playing time and likely be called up around September.

If you’re still interested in what other baseball writers have said about Mercado, as I was, the reviews are generally positive. Ben Godar of Viva el Birdos compared Mercado to Tommy Pham (whom I recently wrote would make a good acquisition for Cleveland). At Fansided’s Cardinals’ blog, Redbird Rant, author Michael Miles described Mercado as the “center fielder of the Cardinals future” and called the deal a “mistake” for St. Louis.

Over at the Athletic, Melissa Lockard expects Mercado to have an impact early, with the chance to be a starter as soon as next year. “Mercado profiles as a top-of-the-order hitter. He controls the strike zone well at the plate and has good bat-to-ball skills…. His speed is his standout tool and it allows him to be disruptive on the basepaths and cover a lot of ground in center field.”

Perhaps the best voice on the Cardinals, however, is Derrick Goold, and he seemed to be enamored with Mercado’s speed. “One of the fastest players in the organization. And perhaps the real, true base-stealer they have. He wants to steal bases -- and that’s something Lou Brock says not many want to do anymore. Mercado does. Late bloomer? He’s 23 in Class AAA. He’s not late anything. He’s young and rising,” Goold wrote.

Where Mercado fits in Cleveland

The fit right now for Mercado, especially with the way Martín has begun his Tribe career, is a little complex. The current outfield — Brantley in left, Martín and Rajai Davis in center, Brandon Guyer and Melky Cabrera in right — certainly has room for improvement. Davis and Cabrera are the most questionable, and Guyer, although he has shown signs of finally overcoming his wrist injury, simply must have a platoon partner.

Davis has been replacement level so far this year, okay defensively but poor offensively with a little value on the basepaths. Moreover, he offers very little in terms of a platoon, as he hits lefties (.250/.291/.275) nearly as well as righties (.259/.315/.365), though there is a larger split in terms of wRC+ (53 vs. 85). But, Martín is also better against righties, with a (much) better split than Davis (.277/.351/.433 with 113 wRC+).

Cabrera has been worse than replacement (-0.2 fWAR), and his splits (in a small sample) are favorable against lefties (.348/.375/.435, 121 wRC+) but not so much against righties (.236/.272/.347, 61 wRC+). Of course, Guyer is a lefty masher (.267/.405/.533, 157 wRC+), which means Cabrera should have less of a home than Davis in the Cleveland outfield. Davis has acquitted himself away from center field (0 errors over 15 plays made in 134.1 innings), but is that enough to earn him a postseason roster spot?

Mercado has little separation when facing left- and right-handed opposition (.313/.367/.434 and .278/.346/.401, respectively), but that slight advantage versus lefties might be enough to make him a good pairing (or at least deputy to) with Martín. Assuming he does get a call in these last two months, as Callis suggested he would, Mercado would need to show that his hit tool can play in the big leagues. And if he does that, a role similar to what Allen played last year (fourth outfielder, late-inning speed guy) could be in Mercado’s future.

Of course, whether Mercado’s October is spent in a big league uniform might depend on what moves the Indians can make this month. If the team can add a platoon partner for Guyer (like Adam Jones, who has a 105 wRC+ vs. righties, or [less likely] Shin-Soo Choo, 148 wRC+ vs. righties), Davis and Cabrera become very much expendable. If a deal is not forthcoming, however, Mercado’s importance to this team may not be so evident this year.

But the Indians don’t just make deals for the present, and based on the assessment from Callis and Viva el Birdos and Goold and so on, Mercado seems to have a bright future ahead. As soon as next year, Mercado may jump to the top of the center field depth chart, and that could make this deal a very important one, though I still feel we may notice its import sooner.