Indians

The Indians acquire Oscar Mercado

(Bobby Stevens/MiLB.com)

In the closing minutes of the 2018 trade deadline, the Cleveland Indians acquired minor league centerfielder Oscar Mercado from the St. Louis Cardinals, for minor league outfielders Jhon Torres and Conner Capel. The deal was announced post-deadline during a Chris Antonetti, post-deadline conference call.

“We are excited to acquire Oscar. He can impact the game in multiple ways with his hit-ability and above-average speed, which plays both on defense and on the bases. He’s a player we liked in the draft and have followed closely throughout his professional career with the Cardinals. He bolsters our organizational outfield depth in the short-term and we’re optimistic about his continued development.”

While the deal certainly doesn’t have the implications of the Brad Hand and Adam Cimber deal right after the All-Star break, or even the Lleonys Martin deal from earlier in the day, Mercado has sneaky upside that could add value as early as this season. On the outside looking in, the deal appears to be fairly minor, just another one of those late trade deadline moves that might have Cleveland Indians fans reminiscing about the “zero hour” trade in 2012 in which the team acquired Lars Anderson for Steven Wright.

Let’s be clear: Oscar Mercado is no Lars Anderson.

Mercado upgrades the Indians outfield situation, and in dealing Conner Capel to get him, the Indians were able to acquire a better prospect than Capel, who has the added benefit of also being closer to the big leagues. This isn’t to knock Capel’s skillset. The Indians liked him as a prospect and were moving him swiftly through the system, but while the Indians were still waiting on many aspects of Capel’s game to develop, Mercado is certainly closer to being big league ready.

Probably the one area in which Capel seemed to have an advantage over Mercado was with regards to power. Capel’s 22 home runs at Lake County in 2017 were one more home run than Mercado had hit in the Cardinal’s system from 2013 through 2017, but Capel’s slugging percentage and home run production has dropped precipitously in 2018 in his move to the much more difficult Carolina League, which lends question to how much power Capel really has as he develops. While much has been made regarding Capel being almost 2 1/2 years younger, he’s two full years below Mercado, with a whole lot of unknown in between. With the Indians window likely at its zenith over the next three years, Capel is the odd man out, as Mercado is likely a Capel mirror, just more advanced, and ready for the current window.

Who is Oscar Mercado?

I look at Mercado as an emergency “break glass if needed” player in 2018, and while that may immediately throw fans up in arms because of the Indians outfield issues this season, might I remind you that Mercado is ready in said emergency. This wasn’t a deal to fix the outfield issues right away. Instead, it was likely a deal to give the Indians “Bradley Zimmer/Tyler Naquin insurance” over the next 18 months.

Much like Greg Allen, Mercado is a plus-defensive outfielder with plenty of speed. I’d still grade Allen as the better defender, but Mercado is almost two full years younger than Allen and has only been playing centerfield for two seasons. 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.

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.

According to Bleacher Report, right after the 2013 draft concluded:

“A natural shortstop, Mercado is a smooth, fluid defender at a position that demands it to go along with terrific instincts and a strong, accurate throwing arm that allows him to get the ball to first base from angles that others at the position can only dream of.”

In one of those rare instances, St. Louis draft pundits were all in on Mercado long before the draft. In a process that drafts more than 1,000 players every year, this doesn’t happen very often. Just prior to the draft, the St. Louis Dispatch’s Derrick Goold mentioned him as a potential Cardinal get with a compensatory pick in the first round:

The extra pick “offers some cap space for us to maneuver and get creative in some areas,” said Kantrovitz, who held mock drafts with his staff as prep for the three-day draft. The Cardinals have been linked to college pitchers, as usual, with Gonzaga lefty Marco Gonzales and Florida righty Jonathon Crawford potential picks, according to Baseball America. Outfielder Austin Wilson, the club’s 12th-round pick in 2010 who was wooed at Busch Stadium that summer, is eligible again after his junior year at Stanford. Also of interest to the club has been high school shortstop Oscar Mercado, of Tampa.

The Cardinals didn’t use the compensatory pick on Mercado, instead choosing high school starting pitcher, Rob Kaminsky.  Ironically enough, the Indians traded Brandon Moss for Kaminsky at the trade deadline two years later. Kaminsky has struggled with injury since the trade and is currently a reliever for Double A Akron.

Since draft day, Mercado has moved through the Cardinals minor league organization systematically. If this were the Cleveland Indians organization, it would be a sure sign that Mercado was a future major league lock. But, with the Cardinals, I’m not really sure what that movement means, because as a shortstop, Mercado just wasn’t a very good baseball player. But come hell-or-highwater, the Cardinals moved Mercado up a level every year.

Mercado spent most of his first four seasons with the Cardinals struggling at shortstop, and it didn’t go very well. From 2013 through 2016, Mercado started in 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 indicative of a defensive problem, when they are this widespread over several levels, it’s not good. When you’re a defensive-first shortstop, and you aren’t playing good defense, something has to change. Mercado wasn’t doing anything of note offensively at that point in his career.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Courtesy of Fangraphs

So if you are a minor league organization loaded with outfielders, what do you do with a prospect that’s struggling in every offensive and defensive category, and at every level, as a shortstop? Well, obviously, you move him to centerfield, right?

That’s exactly what the Cardinals decided to do. Perhaps it says a lot about Mercado’s character, that they even took the steps to give him another shot. While it’s impossible to read into any move without being in the situation, it certainly seemed like Mercado took to the move running.

This is where things really get crazy. Sure, organizations move players around all the time in the minors, but there’s usually a learning curve. Common sense would tell you that learning a new position defensively on the fly will lead to struggle, and in general, a player’s offense takes a hit as well, since their focus is on learning that new position.

But for Mercado, the exact opposite happened the second he made the switch.

On a dime, Mercado saw improvement, both defensively, and offensively as well. He moved off short on July 21, 2016, and after a game at center and third, he finished the season off as the regular Palm Beach Cardinals centerfielder, playing every game there from July 23 through the end of the season.

In August, after hitting .215 for most of the season, he hit .274, with nine doubles, 16 runs, 15 walks, and only 13 strikeouts, and he’s never looked back.

Somehow, Mercado has not only become a plus fielder, but he’s become a solid offensive player as well, and there was no learning curve to speak of.

Heading into 2017, Mercado looked like a completely different baseball player. He burst onto the scene at Double A Springfield, reaching base in the first 34 games of the season, which included a 20-game hit streak, which is a Springfield record. He ended that season with a .287/.341/.428 slash, with a career high 13 homers, with 38 stolen bases. He jumped to the 17th best prospect on MLB Pipelin, and jumped into a whole lot of conversations regarding prospect upside.

It is important to note that in 2017, Mercado wore down as the year went on. On June 30th, 2017, he went on the seven-day DL with a strained shoulder, rushed back into the lineup by July 11th, and struggled mightily in the month of July, hitting .185. He did rebound in August and September, but I just wanted to note that he has had a few bumps since moving to the outfield.

Heading into 2018, Cardinal-nation was excited about the re-emergence of one of their former top draft picks, and he showed up in the top 20 of almost every prospect report I could find. He was 17th in MLB Pipeline, 13th in the Redbird Daily, and 17th in Viva El Birdos.

How has he been in 2018?

Last year, he hit .287, and this year he’s currently hitting .285. Last year, his OBP was .341, and this year it’s .351. Last year his slugging was .428, and this year it’s .408. Last year he stole 38 bases, and this year, 31. Last year, he hit 22.8% line drives, 40% ground balls, and 37.2% fly balls, and this year he’s hitting 22.2% line drives, 39.4% ground balls, and 38.4% fly balls.

But what’s even more interesting is that after seeing his BB% drop, and K% increase in 2017, he’s seen both statistics reverse in 2018. His BB% is at a respectable 8.4% (up from 6.1% in 2017), and he’s striking out at 15% (down from 21.4%). He’s much more selective, while maintaining everything else in his swing.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Overall, you can see that Mercado’s statistics are pretty stable. No, he’s not likely to become an offensive star, but he’s not going to likely hurt you either. He not only gets on base, but once he does, he can really do some damage on the basepaths. When you combine that with his plus defense, you have a player that can become an effective weapon on the big league level.

Remember how bad he was offensively at shortstop? Here’s how good he’s been in center, on the fly, while moving up to Double A, then Triple A.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Every important category has improved, and dramatically so.

What has impressed me the most in my research of Mercado today has been 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 his recent Q&A’s, you catch a whiff of what I’m talking about.

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.

What’s he look like on the field?

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.

Here’s a home run he gets under in June of 2017:

Here’s a home run from last August:

Here’s a home run from this May:

There’s a lot to like there.

Defensively, Mercado is still learning, but you can see that his athletic ability has helped him along the way.

Here’s Mercado covering a ton of ground to make a hard catch easy.

And here’s another great catch by Mercado, but perhaps the Indians need to make sure that he starts calling guys off a little more boisterously:

I don’t know that there’s anything special about his catch, other than the fact that it’s in right field, made to look easy, and backhanded. What’s great about this play is that he takes a look at the wall about 30 feet out, and never takes another look.

So, c’mon, 3000 words on Mercado?

No, Oscar Mercado isn’t Tommy Pham, the player that I most wanted the Indians to make a move for. What’s interesting about Mercado though, 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.

What’s been fun is watching twitter go nuts over this deal. In St. Louis, some fans were furious that the team dealt Mercado. In Cleveland, some fans were equally furious that the team dealt Capel and Torres. It just goes to show you how silly prospect rankings tend to be.

The move immediately gives the Indians relief in the outfield, along with the higher profile trade that brought the Indians Lleonys Martin from the Tigers. Mercado’s upside and control give the Indians a player they can look at long into the future, and at only 23, Mercado is 3 1/2 years under the average age in Triple A. For a guy just learning the position, he should provide the Indians an immediate big league skill-set.

He fits the current window, and with Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall potentially gone next year, and with the question marks surrounding Bradley Zimmer’s immediate future, Mercado is another player that can fill in a spot going forward. It’s also likely that with Martin and Mercado, Tyler Naquin may have played his last “regular-ish” game in center.

As I watched video of Mercado in prepping for this piece, 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 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.

No, Oscar Mercado wasn’t the big splash that many were looking for, but he’s certainly a player who can provide impact in an outfield that sorely needs it.