All Oscar Mercado to do had to was hit, and he’d be a five-tool player.
The 24-year-old acquired at last year’s trade deadline had the speed, outfield ability, and arm to make him an everyday center fielder on most MLB teams when he joined the Indians organization, but throughout this five-and-a-half seasons in the Cardinals system, Mercado had a wRC+ over 110 just once, in 523 Double-A plate appearances when he slashed .287/.341/.428 with a career-high 13 home runs. Despite stealing 30-plus bases multiple times (including a 50-swipe season in 2015), and playing great defense since transitioning from shortstop to center field in 2016, it didn’t look like his bat would translate well to the majors.
The Indians could have considered promoting him towards the end of last season, when their center field situation went from bleak to bleaker with Leonys Martin’s life-threatening injury. Mercado was off to a hot start with the Cardinals’ Triple-A squad in 2018, and he kept hitting well with the Columbus Clippers when the Indians brought him over at the trade deadline. With the Clippers, Mercado carried a .252/.342/.320 slash in 32 games, which isn’t going to blow anybody away, but a better overall approach at the plate that he seemed to be developing in the latter years of Cardinals career was present with the Indians.
Still, the Indians opted to be patient, and gave him an invite to spring training in 2019 with the expectation that he might have something to prove. It’s safe to say he has met, and in some ways blown right past, those expectations. He even takes time on Twitter to dunk on bad Skip Bayless takes. There’s literally so much to love about this kid.
Despite all that, the Indians announced on Tuesday that Mercado would be optioned back to Triple-A to start the season, with the explanation that he would be better off getting everyday playing time over occasionally filling in for Leonys Martin. Assuming this isn’t just the Indians manipulating his playing time — which it doesn’t appear to be — it’s not exactly the wrong move. I’d even say it’s the right one.
Spring training numbers are spring training numbers, but Mercado has 16 hits in 41 plate appearances, including three home runs. His seven strikeouts to one walk is concerning, but other than that, you couldn’t ask for a much better spring out of a guy who has never faced major-league pitching on a consistent basis.
According to Baseball-Reference’s opponent quality rating — which measures the quality of opposing pitchers by their level last season where 10 is a major-league pitcher, 9 is Triple-A and so on — Mercado faced roughly the equivalent of a Double-A pitcher at 7.2 for the spring. That’s right around dead center for the league so far this spring.
Now, pitcher-versus-hitter numbers are worthless enough, let alone in spring training — but hear me out. For the sake of this very specific analysis about a player in a meaningless string of games, it’s not like Mercado was feasting on the lower-level pitchers he faced. Ten of his 16 hits came against pitchers that reached the majors last year, three off Triple-A pitchers, and only three came from pitchers at Double-A or below. All three of his homers were off major-league pitchers.
Take a look.
Oscar Mercado Spring Training Hits
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That’s neat and all, but arguably the more important thing about spring is how managers feel about players. This might be the one time of year where feel and how a guy looks comes above all else — at least for fringe roster guys like Mercado.
And boy does Terry Francona seem to like this kid. As he told MLB.com’s Mandy Bell:
“In the end, the way we’re situated, playing once or twice a week in April in Cleveland, first time in the Major Leagues, we didn’t think that was setting him up for success,” Francona said. “I think we all feel like he has the capabilities of being an everyday Major League player. So to short-change him like that, that’s just not setting him up for success. And we explained that to him.”
“He’s a really off-the-charts kid,” Francona said. “Sometimes when you tell the guys the message that they’re getting sent down, they’re not able to really digest what comes after that. So we wanted to make sure he did, because we thought it was important.
and don’t forget this one
“He’s in a good place. He should be. He’s a smart kid, he plays the outfield well, he can run, he’s revamped his swing. His future should be bright.”
Tito, for better or worse, is usually pretty bad at hiding how he feels about prospects. He’ll be the first to tell reporters that a player is a little too heavy at spring camp, or that he doesn’t believe in someone’s defensive abilities behind the plate or at third base (no matter how big their biceps are). So I’m willing to take his whole-hearted endorsement of Mercado at face value for now. I also think it’s okay that he’s starting the season in Triple-A.
Mercado reportedly put a ton of work into his swing in the offseason. In a report for The Athletic, T.J. Zuppe detailed how Mercardo worked on driving the ball to the opposite field in the offseason, and how he worked within the Tribe’s offseason swing clinics to achieve his goals. Goals that, so far, seem to be on track. It also includes another glowing review from Francona:
“He worked so hard in the offseason, trying to kind of revamp his swing,” Terry Francona said. “I don’t care if it’s spring training or not, he’s swinging the bat really well.”
It’s entirely possible the Indians didn’t expect his bat to be this good when they traded for him last offseason. I’m sure they hoped it would be, but if it was a surefire thing, they probably wouldn’t have gotten him for another, lesser, outfield prospect in Jhon Torres. That’s why they also grabbed Leonys Martin for the playoff push right around the same time as Mercado before life-threatening bacteria decided Martin’s innocent insides were a good place to settle in for a while and ruin everything.
Mercado might be on the verge of being great, but there’s no reason to take away Martin’s consistent playing time in center field quiet yet. This isn’t another Melky Cabrera or Marlon Byrd situation — Martin is a legit center fielder. Even if his bat takes some time to come around, he can be counted on being a defensive force in the outfield, which seems like a focus of the Tribe’s outfield configuration right now. At the very least, he might be one of the few consistent forces in the lineup not named Jose Ramirez or Francisco Lindor, even if he’s not putting up monster numbers every night. Bottom line: he deserves the playing time.
Meanwhile, Mercado can continue to work on his shiny new swing in Triple-A and make sure everything feels right while the Indians learn if his spring numbers were just a mirage or a real sign of greatness. If Martin does struggle to come back to baseball, or Mercado just looks unstoppable, nothing is stopping him from getting his chance this year. If not, 2020 is wide open for a battle between him, Bradley Zimmer, and Greg Allen — and I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Mercado come out on top.