Red hot Mercado emerging as center field prospect

By Kary Booher (for O-Zone)

Photo by Mark Harrell

Even playing a kids game, baseball can be a dark place. Which is why last summer, just three years after agreeing to a signing bonus reportedly worth $1.5 million but little to show for it, his cell phone kept buzzing his parent’s phones back home.

Oscar Mercado hadn’t quite had enough of the game. Yet the game, not his bat or glove, were winning.

“I felt like I had to live up to standards and what I did was put a huge, huge cloud in my head,” Mercado said. “I definitely had my moments where I’d call my parents and vent to them because I felt like my world was crashing down.”

What a difference a year – and position switch – now make, as Mercado has emerged as one of the exciting prospects this spring for the Springfield Cardinals. And it’s worth wondering if he becomes a midseason trade-chip along the lines of two former farmhands who overcame Class A struggles, connected here in the Double-A Texas League and became deadline deals that helped fuel St. Louis to October success.

After all, the former shortstop has done his best Superman impersonation out in center field, robbing batters of extra-base hits with all-out leaping grabs, and along the way apparently super-charged his bat into an electric socket.

This for a player listed in the intriguing role of “sleeper” just outside of Baseball America’s Top 30 St. Louis Cardinals prospect rankings.

“I just feel like my head is a lot more clear,” said Mercado, whose .314 batting average (22-for-70) sits just outside the league Top 10 as the Cardinals return home Friday for an eight-game homestand. “I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to perform defensively and obviously I didn’t perform to the standards I wanted to.

“It took a big toll on me. Going up to the plate, I felt the pressure to perform and I wasn’t performing on defense. And it kind of went downhill.”

Now saying his position switch has “made the game a lot more fun for me,” Mercado’s sojourn as an outfielder took root last July while in the high Class A Florida State League, where he was batting a meager .205.

Three factors have led to the uptick in production:

  • He is now reunited with Johnny Rodriguez, a former manager in the low minor leagues and now Springfield’s field boss
  • He received a verbal boost from his manager last year, Oliver Marmol;
  • And worked alongside the great Willie McGee this spring in the perfect setting – on the quiet of the back fields of St. Louis’ Florida campus.

Certainly, Mercado looked good in Springfield’s home-opener a couple of weeks ago, ranging into deep left-center field and going all-extended to rob a batter of an extra-base hit.

“He’s made three or four plays like that,” Rodriguez said, not gushing but clearly with pride.

The switch to center field obviously puts Mercado on an already heady depth chart in the St. Louis chain, with Dexter Fowler in the big leagues and prospect Harrison Bader in Triple-A Memphis.

But Rodriguez’s afternoon game plans – in which the full sessions are dedicated to Mercado learning the nuances of playing center – could be a difference-maker. Or, more bluntly, with the road to the big leagues blocked, Mercado could rise to trade-chip status.

It’s not far-fetched as you might think. Outfielders Terry Evans and Alex Castellanos had their struggles in the Cardinals’ Class A affiliates but connected on their talent in Springfield, leading two notable July trade deadline deals that enhanced World Series teams. St. Louis in 2006 flipped Evans for starting pitcher Jeff Weaver and, in 2011, Castellanos’ bat helped fetch shortstop Rafael Furcal from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“For some reason, he plays relaxed for me,” said Rodriguez, his manager a few years ago in the Rookie-level Appalachian League. “We have a real good relationship. … I don’t have to be forceful. You just connect with them. You think as a player first. I know what it’s like to go 0-for-4. So, why make it hard? If you do something wrong, I tell them to work on it the next day.”

The advice comes after Mercado got tough love last summer from Marmol and then took mental notes from McGee.

“He said, ‘Take a lot of pride in BP on getting reads off the bat,’” Mercado said of McGee. “And Johnny’s put a lot of pressure on me in BP as well, saying I want you to take (one round of defense) in every single practice. That lets me get good jumps on the ball and lets my athleticism play.”

Offensively, he’s focused on quality at-bats – hits in two-strike counts, walks, all the things the organization grades everyone on. Because he is getting on base regularly – he has a .368 on-base percentage – Mercado has put his speed on display, stealing five bases in eight attempts. In fact, he’s been on base in 16 of Springfield’s 17 games.

That said, one thing is certain – Mercado, despite the dark period last year, is thriving because he wouldn’t give up on the game.

“This game is my life,” Mercado said. “I don’t think I can walk away from the game like that. A little adversity, everyone goes through it. It would have labeled me a quitter, and I’m going to be here until they tell me I can’t be here anymore.”

Prospect Watch & Notes

  • Prospect right-hander Jack Flaherty is 4-0 with a league-best 0.33 earned run average. That covers 27.1 innings, in which he has 24 strikeouts and has issued only three walks. He was named the Texas League Pitcher of the Week on Monday.
  • Cuban outfielder Adolis Garcia is batting .293 with an eye-popping .517 slugging percentage. That includes three home runs and four doubles, plus 30 RBI.
  • He was a first-round draft pick in 2006 and made his big-league debut in 2009 with the Red Sox, but reliever Daniel Bard joined the club recently. He last pitched in the big leagues in 2013.
  • Springfield is 10-9 and tied with Northwest Arkansas atop the Texas League North Division.
  • This homestand features a four-game series against the Arkansas Travelers, now a Seattle Mariners affiliate, and the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, a Royals affiliate.

 

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