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Why I’m bullish on Oscar Mercado’s future

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The three-run home run against the Phils is still part of the first chapter for Oscar Mercado

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Cleveland Indians Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a funny thing, how we Cleveland baseball fans feel about prospects. All baseball fans carry some hope for their team’s prodigious young talent, or else a cottage industry ranking and arguing about their potential would not exist, but Tribe fans are a bit unique in the way we adulate even our (excuse the term) “middling” prospects.

Maybe Cleveland sentiment is a by-product of market size but, as someone outside northeast Ohio, I don’t see as much of the same level of interest in young talent. Generalizing the support where I’m located, Cardinals fans are spoiled by years of solid development, particularly among pitchers, and generally shrug when a player debuts and immediately plays better than replacement; Cubs fans appreciate the talent when it comes, but almost seem to expect anyone called up to be a bum until proven otherwise; and White Sox fans only exist in 20 square miles around the south side of Chicago and thus remain mysterious.

What I don’t see regularly, however, is the excitement, bordering on hysteria, for a guy like James Karinchak to get a shot in the big leagues. I don’t see any other fanbase falling over themselves begging for a Yu Chang-type utility guy to get consistent at-bats (although, if another team was playing Ryan Flaherty regularly, I’m sure its fans would hate it, too). And, to my recollection, I don’t know any other fanbase that has collectively lost it’s shit about a guy like Yandy Díaz getting away.

I could be wrong about this. Perhaps my insular world revolving around Cleveland baseball Twitter and blogs has misled me about what lies beyond, but I’d like to think that we Tribe fans have a level of appreciation for prospects that goes to the next level. Sometimes we misplace our affection (remember Matt LaPorta?), but generally I’d like to think we’re a pretty astute bunch. After his performance on Sunday night, I think Oscar Mercado is a great example of our prospect love being applied appropriately.

Since his arrival in the organization, I’ve been intrigued by Mercado. Perhaps this is because my friends who are Cardinals fans reaction to the trade and his subsequent success has been something akin to, “Oh, another good outfielder? Well he wouldn’t have displaced Harrison Bader/Tyler O’Neill/etc.” But Mercado is not just another outfielder.

Anecdotally, Mercado has a couple of the biggest moments of the 2019 season. First, he averted near-disaster against the White Sox on September 4, hauling in a 110-mph liner off the bat of Eloy Jiménez, and Sunday he blasted a 387-foot home run to put the Tribe in front for good and into a tie for the second Wild Card spot. Beyond the big moments, though, he’s provided a steadying hand to a miserable outfield and locked down centerfield when the team needed someone to do so in the worst way.

For the season, he’s above average in just about every way possible. His batting average, .281, is 28 points above league average and 33 points above average for centerfielders; his OBP, .330, is seven and 10 points above average, respectively; his slugging, .456, is 20 and 18 points above average, respectively; and his wOBA, .331, is 11 and 15 points above average, respectively. In addition, his wRC+ is 101 and he’s provided positive runs on offense (5.4), defense (0.1), and baserunning (4.5), leading to 2.1 fWAR. His wins above replacement mark is tied for 14th among all rookies in 2019 (a really good year for rookies, mind you), just one tenth behind Alex Verdugo — a player many fans coveted in a hypothetical trade for Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer prior to the season.

Now, 14th in fWAR among rookies means he’s not likely going to be awarded anything greater than Indians Rookie of the Year, but he’s providing ample evidence that he is capable of continuing improvement. Obviously, Mercado has had a growth profile since he was drafted; originally a shortstop, he was converted to centerfield by the Cardinals before the Indians came calling. But it’s his ability to improve at the major league level that is most exciting, as Mercado showed an ability to overcome struggles at the plate by turning a 44 wRC+ in August into a 148 wRC+ in September.

Widespread respect is still not there for Mercado, as just last week he was completely snubbed by Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline in his future value rankings. But maybe that’s okay. We Tribe fans can love and respect our guys enough on our own. I think we’re pretty good at it. And if Mercado keeps improving, well he’ll force some mea culpas of his own, just like another pretty talented young Tribe player.