St. Louis Cardinals: Oscar Mercado shouldn’t be overlooked

The Cardinals suddenly have a glut of talented outfield prospects, and former second-rounder Oscar Mercado might just be as skilled as any of them.

Not too long ago, there were more than a few evaluators out there who thought 22-year-old Oscar Mercado was the St. Louis Cardinals’ shortstop of the future. Mercado was selected as a glove-first shortstop out of high school in the second round of the 2013 draft, and at the time, it looked like his developmental schedule would be perfectly aligned so that he’d be big-league ready by the time Jhonny Peralta‘s contract expired at the end of the 2017 season.

Unfortunately, Mercado’s premium prospect status faded rather quickly. He was ranked as the Cardinals’ No. 26 prospect by MLB Pipeline at the end of the 2015 season, but he’s been somewhat of an afterthought for a while now as more intriguing infielders–most notably Aledmys Díaz, have risen quickly through the Cardinals’ system.

Now, though, as Mercado is in the midst of his fourth professional season–at which point many college draftees would be embarking upon their first pro campaign–he’s beginning to reemerge as a prospect. His star has been rising ever since the Cardinals decided to convert him to center field last summer, and while he risks getting lost in the shuffle with other premium outfield prospects like Magneuris Sierra, Harrison Bader, José Adolis García, Randy Arozarena, Nick Plummer, and Dylan Carlson currently in the Cards’ system, he’s making a great case for himself to begin 2017.

Before you understand how Mercado has rebuilt his reputation, you have to understand how he damaged it in the first place. There was no expectation that Mercado would immediately step foot on a minor-league field and begin raking at the plate; instead, the common belief was that his glove would carry him up through the system and his hitting skills would eventually develop. After all, he’d posted a measly .286 batting average with no home runs during his senior year at Gaither High School–big-league draftees usually dominate the prep circuit and hit in the .400s–and the Cardinals obviously were willing to be patient when they spent a second-round pick on him.

To an extent, the belief about Mercado’s glove allowing him to climb the ladder has been true. He’s never repeated a level of the minors, even though his career-high batting average was .254 (at Class A Peoria in 2015), his career-best on-base percentage .303 (at advanced rookie level Johnson City in 2014), and his all-time best slugging percentage .341 (also at Peoria). Applying the ACT concept of “super-scoring” to Mercado’s OPS (taking the best score from every area), Mercado’s career-best “super OPS” would be .644. It could certainly be argued that Mercado’s draft status was the primary factor in his consistent ascension up the organizational ladder, but it definitely wasn’t his performance at the plate that allowed him to keep moving up.

And while his offensive issues were deeply concerning and his defensive ceiling much higher, the fact that he was an outright butcher in the field was the most troubling development of all. We don’t value errors as heavily in determining a player’s defensive worth as we used to, but the frequency at which Mercado committed them was just too disturbing to ignore. After committing roughly an error in every other game–15 errors in 33 starts–with the rookie-level GCL Cardinals in 2013, Mercado had an equally atrocious season for short-season Johnson City in 2014, committing 33 errors in 60 games.

While his efficiency improved in 2015 as he played in a then-career-high 106 games at Class A Peoria, he still committed a career-high 41 errors. And while his status as a high draft pick and long-term potential as a fielder allowed him to continue to climb the minor-league ladder, his issues in the field didn’t go away.

Mercado’s struggles came to a climax last summer, as he struggled mightily at shortstop for a fourth straight season, committing 29 errors in 81 games at short. When shortstop Edmundo Sosa, who was then ranked as the top infield prospect in the Cardinals’ system, moved up to Palm Beach on July 22, the Cardinals began using Mercado in center field, starting him there 38 times over the remainder of the season.

There’s definitely evidence to back up the fact that hitters tend to struggle if they’re carrying issues in the field with them to the plate. Consider, for instance, Carson Kelly, who’s now ranked as the organization’s No. 2 prospect and the top catching prospect in baseball. After being drafted in the second round as a third baseman, Kelly was converted into a backstop after 2013, his first full pro season. He proceeded to struggle as a hitter for the next two seasons, failing to post a batting average above .250 or an OPS above .700.

It’s almost surely not a coincidence that Kelly struggled at the plate as he had to think about adjusting to catcher. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Derrick Goold wrote last summer, Kelly asserts “that the offensive side was dormant while he learned to catch, not unplugged.” Once Kelly really got comfortable behind the plate and was able to step into the batter’s box without carrying his performance in the field along with him, he found his hitting stroke once again. Kelly posted a .289/.343/.395 slash line between Double-A and Triple-A last season and earned his first call up to the big leagues in September. Though he didn’t break camp with the major-league club this spring, he’s raking at Triple-A and may soon force the Cardinals’ hand.

Mercado could take the same type of path to the big leagues. While he hasn’t yet established himself as one of the minors’ premier defensive center fielders like Kelly has as a catcher, he’s rediscovered his ability with the bat since moving to center. His conversion to the outfield began in late July of last year, and it’s impossible to ignore how drastically his offensive numbers improved immediately after the change was made.

After failing to post an OPS above .600 over the first four months of last season, Mercado posted a .280/.374/.350 slash line in August–good for a season-best .724 OPS. He’s kept that trend going into this season.

Through his first 153 plate appearances of 2017, Mercado has posted by far the best offensive numbers of his career. He’s got a .331/.401/.507 slash line with four home runs, which ties his career high. Mercado, who’s always posted low strikeout totals, has struck out 38 times this season and is on pace to have more punchouts than he’s ever had before. On the plus side, though, he’s already walked 14 times and has a good shot to eclipse the career-best 44 walks he accumulated last season.

And while Mercado might not be as talented of a baserunner as the current flavor of the month in Cardinal Nation, Magneuris Sierra, he’s sure to make an impact on the basepaths wherever he goes. Mercado, who’s stolen at least 12 and as many as 50 bases in every one of his pro seasons, already has 13 steals while being caught four times this year for Springfield, and his baserunning awareness is a definite plus, allowing him to make heads-up plays like this one:

It’s also worth noting that he’s been very dependable in the field to start the season, as he has no errors though 81 chances in center field (though he did make one error during one of the two games he’s played in left field). Considering that he shows so much speed on the basepaths and came into the system as a glove-first shortstop, it seems like he should have the proper skills to succeed in center at the big-league level.

Mercado is going to face plenty of continued challenges in his bid to rebuild his reputation. He’ll have to continue hitting well, even if it’s not at the out-of-his-mind level he’s hitting at right now, and he’ll have to fight hard to avoid being pushed out of center field by another highly-acclaimed prospect.

For now, the biggest threat to his prospect future is likely Sierra, who the Cardinals are expected to send to the minors when Stephen Piscotty returns from a  hamstring injury later this week. The 21-year-old Sierra, who was summoned from High-A ball when he first got the call, figures to receive a promotion but probably won’t go to Triple-A, so Springfield might be his destination. He’s considered to be an elite fielder, and his presence would probably force Mercado to a corner position.

He’ll also have to fend off competition from Arozarena, a 22-year-old Cuban import who received a big bonus last year. Arozarena has split time between center and the corner spots at Palm Beach, but he’s currently considered by most to be a better prospect than Mercado, so he’d certainly have a shot to cut into Mercado’s playing time if he were to receive a promotion to Springfield later this year.

Ultimately, Mercado can only control what he can control. His performance is pretty intriguing right now, and though the Cardinals have attempted to move on to greener pastures, Mercado is still young and talented enough to stop the organization from writing him off completely.