St. Louis Cardinals: The emergence of Oscar Mercado

Mar 11, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Colombia outfielder Oscar Mercado (12) celebrates with teammates after scoring a run in the ninth inning against Canada during the 2017 World Baseball Classic at Marlins Park. Colombia won 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 11, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Colombia outfielder Oscar Mercado (12) celebrates with teammates after scoring a run in the ninth inning against Canada during the 2017 World Baseball Classic at Marlins Park. Colombia won 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports /

Analysts always preach about the upside of young talents taken in the MLB draft straight out of high school. St. Louis Cardinals outfield prospect Oscar Mercado is finally showing the potential many saw in him.

There comes a time in every athlete’s career where something clicks in them and all of a sudden they start producing tremendously for their team. This is that season for converted outfielder Oscar Mercado, currently with the Springfield Cardinals (the double-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals).

The St. Louis Cardinals selected 18-year-old Mercado out of Gaither high school in Tampa, Florida. According to Perfect Game, he was the number-one ranked high school shortstop, and the 18th-ranked high school player in the 2013 class. He was supposed to be THE guy at shortstop for the Cardinals’ future. However, through four seasons of defensive struggles, that has changed.

In four seasons, spanning from 2013-2016, Mercado started in 173 minor league games at shortstop. In those games, he made 118 errors, good for a .906 fielding percentage. That does not exactly scream “high level defensive tools” that scouts inked in his scouting report. Luckily for Mercado and the Cardinals organization there was time to rectify the situation.

Last season at high-A Palm Beach, the Florida native made the switch to outfield. Through eighty-three games played in center field, Mercado has been able to transition seamlessly without any problems. He has actually given the St. Louis Cardinals another option when it comes to having a true center fielder.

His reactionary instincts combined with athletic prowess is the perfect combination to range through the outfield at will. It did not take long for Mercado to make crowds “ohh and ahh” with multiple diving plays through the first two months of the 2017 season. The best part is that he’s only made two errors in 480.1 innings spent in center field this season.

The successful position change has St. Louis Cardinals fans buzzing about his talent, but that is not the only thing different from past years; his bat has come alive. Mercado’s hitting is red hot through the first half of the 2017 season leading the Springfield Cardinals to a first place spot in the Texas League North standings.

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Mercado burst onto the double-A scene by getting on base in each of the first twenty-four games this season, including a 19-game hitting streak. Those accolades are just a glimpse of what he has been able to provide to Springfield’s club this season.

In his first four years, Mercado has been abysmal at the plate that caused much of Cardinals’ faithful to worry. Through his first four seasons, Mercado’s BABIP has been in the .250-.280 range. In 2017, however, it is up to .411, which is remarkable. He has shown improvement all across the board in any hitting metric you want to use.

The 2013 second round draft pick has a slash line of .333/.389/.502 and is among the best hitters in the Texas League. He ranks fourth in batting average, third in total bases (104), sixth in slugging percentage, and sixth in runs scored (34). He has shown a surprising increase in power, knocking seven balls out of the park so far in 2017 compared to eight total home runs through his first four minor league years.

Although his strikeout percentage has increased 8.4% from last season to 22.4%, Mercado has proven himself a capable lead-off hitter with his knack to find holes in the defense and has showed an ability to create runs for Springfield. He sports a .396 wOBA, which is almost 100 points higher than his previous career best of .299 in 2015. His 2017 wRC+ is up to 147 this season compared to a 71 wRC+ in 2016.

There are few metrics, advanced or not, that do not show improvement in Mercado’s game. But what does this mean for the St. Louis Cardinals’ future? The organization is obviously deep at the outfield positions, especially now with Mercado thrown into the mix.

Would it have been more ideal if he could have panned out as an infielder? Sure, but that’s not the case. A surplus of talent is a good thing to have. It allows the organization’s executives to pick through the number of talented players they have, prioritize who they want to keep, and put others into trade talks.

Personally, when I see young talent tear up the minor leagues I have trouble parting with them for an addition to the big league team. The ‘what if’ scenario is always in the back of my head.

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With the number of outfield prospects the St. Louis Cardinals possess, it is clear that some of these guys will be dealt to acquire a proven major leaguer. If the Cardinals think this season is a flash in the pan type of year for Mercado, moving him may be an option. However, I would advise against that for the time being.

Before this season he was dreadful in every aspect of the game. The only thing he had going for him was a decent K%. The large increase in BABIP could suggest that Mercado has had some luck on his side in 2017.

For example, Harrison Bader has produced a BABIP in the .340-.350 range at each minor league level in which he has at least 200 plate appearances. This suggests that Bader is the more likely big league option as he has proven to be a more consistent, polished hitter thus far.

With this said, it will likely take one or two more seasons to figure out what type of hitter Mercado may be at the major league level. This is his age-22 season so there is plenty of time to get a further look at him. I’d suggest that this is a better option than gifting him in a deal with another organization. At least, as of today.

With the struggles of Randal Grichuk, the St. Louis Cardinals may have started working their way through the amount of outfield talent they have. The fact is, barring a position change, a team can only play three outfielders at a time. Sure, Stephen Piscotty could transition to first base at some point, however there is still a surplus of talent.

The Cardinals must weigh all their options about who is most likely to contribute at the big league level, and that includes Mercado.

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Regardless of what Oscar Mercado’s future with the St. Louis Cardinals looks like, he is having a magnificent season. With him being only 22, the organization has a chance to let him spend the rest of the 2017 season in Springfield continuing to develop both defensively and offensively.