Cleveland Indians

The Indians Oscar Mercado hype is well earned

Oscar Mercado, the 24-year old Indians’ prospect currently playing in the outfield for the Columbus Clippers, is currently participating in a quest that every minor league player finds themself in: Do whatever it takes to make it to the big leagues.

So in the closing minutes of the 2018 trade deadline, when the Cleveland Indians acquired Mercado from the St. Louis Cardinals, for minor league outfielders Jhon Torres and Conner Capel, his quest took another turn, and perhaps made his path a little easier, but with complications. The Cardinals, seemingly loaded with interesting outfield prospects, or at least prospect that they thought of higher than Mercado, posed legitimate road blocks. The Indians, on the other hand, had a lot more question marks heading into the 2019 season, and their outfield has had question marks at one position or another for nearly all of Terry Francona’s tenure as manager.

Mercado rolled into his first Indians’ spring training, and was one of the offensive starts. Mercado had three doubles, a triple, and a home run on his way to a .400/.415/.715 slash. But let’s be clear, minor leaguers in the Indians organization aren’t often afforded an easy path to the majors, regardless of what they do in both spring training, or the regular season. This isn’t to say that Mercado should earn a slot in the starting outfield after a spring training hot streak. While the Indians’ outfield didn’t have the makings of being very good (it was certainly loaded with questions), you can always make a good case to give a minor leaguer a bit more seasoning, unless they’re over-seasoned.

Mercado was on the border of that conversation, having spent a full season in Triple A, first with the Cardinals organization in Memphis, and then with the Indians in Columbus after the trade. He hadn’t really hit much in the small sample size with the Clippers, so while the spring training showing likely put him on the map, it certainly was a small sample size.

Plus, you never really know if a player is in the middle of a swing or approach overhaul.

It’s likely the Indians wanted to get him a little more seasoned, while trying to figure out who out of the mix of Jake Bauers, Leonys Martin, Jordan Luplow, Tyler Naquin, and Greg Allen were going to be full-time options. I’ll throw Carlos Gonzalez in here, and Cameron Maybin was in the equation for a bit as well, but I’ll get to him in a second

So who was Oscar Mercado prior to coming to Cleveland?

Oscar Mercado is a plus-defensive outfielder with plenty of speed, who is almost two full years younger than Greg Allen and has only been playing in the outfield for two seasons and change.

The Cardinals drafted Mercado with the 57th pick in the second round of the 2013 draft, and most draft pundits were really high on his glove as a shortstop, if not his bat. MLB.com had him ranked as a top 40 pick that year, and he was generally considered the best defensive shortstop in that draft.

Mercado spent most of his first four seasons with the Cardinals struggling at shortstop. From 2013 through 2016, Mercado had 118 errors in 280 games at short (in comparison, the Indians Francisco Lindor made 65 errors over his entire 409 game career in the minors). While errors aren’t always the only indicative of a defensive problem, when they are this widespread over several levels, you can probably make that jump. When you’re a defensive-first shortstop, and you aren’t playing good defense, and you aren’t doing anything of note offensively, the writing is on the wall.

2016 would prove to be a pivotal year for Mercado. In June of that year, the Cardinal took him off the roster of High A Palm Beach for a week to work on his swing.

“I worked a lot with our hitting coordinator [George Greer] in 2016, I was taken off the roster, maybe like five days. I spent a lot of time with our hitting coordinator in the back fields while our team was on the road.

“We just worked and worked and worked, and just kind of tried to figure out flaws to make my swing better, to shorten it up a little bit, to get more consistency out of it. I kind of just stuck with everything he told me. I knew what I needed to do — I just had a hard time trying to incorporate it into a game.”

In July of 2016, the Cardinals moved Mercado to center field. The Cardinals top infielder prospect at the time, Edmundo Sosa was moving up to Palm Beach, so they decided to throw Mercado in center, of all places. The move coincided with those swing changes taking shape. Mercado closed the season hitting .274, with nine doubles, 16 runs, 15 walks, and only 13 strikeouts, and he’s never looked back.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

His numbers in 2017 and 2018 with the Cardinals aren’t earth shattering offensively, but were a dramatic increase in comparison to what he did in the past. The fact that he made the transition from shortstop to center so effortlessly has me believing that he has another level as a fielder. That fact alone makes him a viable replacement for Naquin in 2018, should Naquin miss the rest of the season, as many suspect. And while Mercado’s offense is certainly a question-mark at the big league level, there are signs that he brings the types of skills that should allow him to be a productive major leaguer, as he continues to season his game.

What has impressed me the most in my research of Mercado right after the Indians traded for him is his drive to just be a really good baseball player. In reading a lot of stuff from Cardinals writer Derrick Goold, it’s clear that Mercado is one of those players that is just always moving forward. In one of Goold’s recent Q&A’s, you catch a whiff .

Follow-up: How does the club view Oscar Mercado? Trade asset or future fixture? Seems like he could be a Carlos Gomez-type late bloomer.

GOOLD: Yes, they see him as an asset who could be traded and as a legit prospect, a multi-tooled center fielder who can handle the position as an above-average fielder. 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.

“He wants to steal bases–and that’s something Lou Brock says not many want to do anymore. Mercado does.” That’s a fun little quote.

Oscar Mercado in 2019

Mercado has been on base in 17 of 18 games, has hits in 13 of 18 games, has multi-hit games in 8 of 18 games, and currently is rolling with a .342/.435/.575 slash. He has nine doubles, a triple, and two home runs. He’s stolen eight bases, and has been caught three times.

Traditional stats are fun, but what is the core of what we’re seeing from Mercado, and is it something he can continue to replicate? Obviously, he’s running a .451 BABIP and a .233 ISO early in the season, so there is certainly regression in the cards at some point. If you are a big believer in projections, a lot of regression is in the cards.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

But if you look a bit deeper, there’s a clear change that’s happening regarding Mercado’s swing. As I noted earlier, Mercado is a worker, and a massive overhaul of his swing took place in 2016, which made his swing much more simple and short. This year, it appears as though Mercado has changed his approach again. Take a look at his pull numbers.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Mercado has always been a pull-heavy swinger, but he’s currently sitting at 56.6%, a jump of nearly 10%. He’s still not hitting a ton of fly balls, but this has certainly allowed him to hit the ball a bit harder than in the past.

He has a nice, compact, no frills swing from the right side, which is refreshing when you compare it to the high machination swing utilized by fellow centerfielder, Bradley Zimmer. If you make a mistake to Mercado, he’ll make you pay for it.

How will his swing translate to the big leagues? It’s hard to predicate any youngster’s game to the big leagues, especially one that’s had the transit of Mercado. But his swing is a simple one, and he can generate power. If he continues to try and pull the baseball, he should see some success. Sure, he has the physical tools to be a solid major leaguer, but so often people don’t see the work behind the scenes. Mercado is a worker. When short didn’t work, he made it work in center field. When his swing has failed, he’s changed it. Seems simple.

At the end of the day, Mercado is a plus defender, who has a continually improving hit tool from the right side of the plate, a needed commodity on a team with four lefty outfielders, and a struggling switch hitter in Greg Allen.

A sidenote on Mercado, that I really love

A player I’ve wanted the Indians to trade for since the “ode of Randal Grichuk” began playing a few years ago is Tommy Pham. Ironically enough, Pham was dealt during that same deadline, to the Tampa Bay Rays.

No, Oscar Mercado isn’t Tommy Pham, but what’s interesting about Mercado is that there was a fairly large Cardinals’ contingent that wanted Mercado to replace Pham, once they dealt Pham to Tampa.

It turns out that the Cardinals were looking to flip some of their right handed bats, to acquire left-handed outfield bats, and with Pham gone, the Cardinals had a few guys that could replace him, past Mercado. Capel give them their left-handed hitter, with time to develop, and Pham and Mercado were the odd men out.

As I watched video of Mercado in prepping for an earlier piece on Mercado I’d written for WFNY, I couldn’t help but think of former Cleveland Indians’ outfielder Franklin Gutierrez. While Gutierrez was never really given a clear shot in the Indians’ outfield, he was a spectacular defender, who could play all three outfield positions. He was a high BABIP guy in the minors, who didn’t strike out a whole lot, and walked enough. He had decent speed, and power potential. He eventually won a gold glove in Seattle, and while he was never plus defensively, had seasons in which he did some offensive damage.

I think Mercado is that type of player already, and while Gutierrez probably isn’t the “sexy” comparison, if you know anything about baseball, a Gutierrez-type would be a huge addition to this team.

He’s already a plus defender after two-plus years at the position. What does that look like in two more years? He’s already dramatically improved offensively. What does that look like in two more years, after he grows into that 6’2″ and 175 pound frame?

No, the Indians didn’t get Tommy Pham, but Ben Godar, a writer at Viva El Birdos, had this to say about Mercado earlier this season, after getting eyes on him playing for Memphis:

Before Gomber’s dominant performance on Monday, the player who most stood out to me during the series was Oscar Mercado. Here’s what I knew about him going into this series: He’s a guy the Cardinals drafted as a shortstop, but moved to center field last year. He’s got speed, but hadn’t really hit much, except last year his bat came to life a bit.

With all the outfield depth in the Cardinals system, I’ve had a hard time imagining Mercado as a guy who would ascend to any kind of meaningful role. And he still faces a herculean task to emerge from a crowded field in the high minors, to say nothing of the very solid starting trio already in St. Louis.

But man, did Oscar Mercado impress me in person. And the more I watched him, the more he reminded me of Tommy Pham.

Mercado started all three games of the series in center field. He hit his third home run of the early season, and just missed on two other deep fly balls. He also doubled, walked twice and stole three bases.

The double, in particular, was an impressive example of Mercado’s athleticism. It was a hard liner just past the third baseman. But just as I was thinking “base hit,” I saw Mercado taking a wide turn approaching first. So then I thought, “okay, he’s going to take an aggressive turn and force a throw.” But Mercado kept going, and his head-first slide brought him into 2nd base well ahead of the throw.

Speed, power, athleticism… a guy drafted out of high school as a shortstop but moved into the outfield… blossoming a little late… call me crazy, but this movie is starting to remind me of The Tommy Pham story.”

Now even Godar admits that comps like this are insane, but maybe…just maybe…the Indians found a player who can provide some of what Tommy Pham did for the Cardinals, while still in the upside of his career.

What should the Indians do with Mercado, right now?

The Indians didn’t bring Mercado up to the Indians after they broke from Spring Training because they wanted him to get regular at bats. Because of that, I’m pretty positive that a simple move with Greg Allen doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, unless the Indians want to give Allen regular at bats in Columbus. Of course, this seems to be robbing Peter to pay Paul. Allen is the perfect option right now to stick with the club simple because he can play all three outfield spots, and can hit from both sides of the plate. You want to get him right at some point, but he works perfectly as a fifth outfielder for the time being.

Mercado needs to come up and start, or at the very least, get four starts a week. Leonys Martin isn’t going anywhere in center while he’s riding his hot streak. It’s also doubtful that the Indians are going to be moving Carlos Gonzalez any time soon. He’s not been perfect, but he’s a solid defender who hasn’t looked horrible at the plate. Jake Bauers needs as much time in left as he can get, but also can play at first and DH. That leaves one player as the odd man out, and that’s Tyler Naquin.

Naquin is redundant. Is he a better defender than Mercado?

No.

Is he better offensively than Mercado?

No. And while I realize this is just me projecting what I think will happen once Mercado enters the bigs, it’s also me looking at Tyler Naquin’s substandard offense for much of his career. He is what he is.

Is Tyler Naquin a right-handed hitter?

No.

The Indians should bring up Oscar Mercado, and say their goodbyes to Tyler Naquin. The easy move is Allen, the better move is Naquin.

When to bring up a minor leaguer is never an exact science. Doing it with a minor leaguer who has certainly been on a quest to get to the bigs is even more complicated. While there are always the stories like Jose Ramirez’s and the Francisco Lindor, two guys that seemed destined, there are far more like Oscar Mercado.

Mercado was drafted as a future shortstop star, who couldn’t hit or play shortstop. So, he moved to center, and changed his swing. After six-plus seasons in the minors, Mercado has done everything he could possibly do to get himself ready, including ending up in an organization that has had to piecemeal their outfield this year together.

Nothing is perfect, but if ever there was a right time to give Mercado a chance, that time is most certainly now.

Take a listen to the most recent EHC Podcast, in which Mike Hattery, Gage Will, and I discuss several topics, including Oscar Mercado. The pod was recorded three days ago, and you’ll find Mike’s predictions on Mercado pretty interesting.

Give Mike Hattery’s piece on Mercado a read.

While you’re at it, Give Gage Will’s piece on Mercado a read too.

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