Oscar Mercado’s presence could lead to another outfield shakeup for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ outfield is in a state of flux this season, and another injury to often-banged-up outfielder Tyler O’Neill made the waters murkier. As O’Neill’s return from the injured list takes longer than expected, his replacement, Oscar Mercado, is seizing the opportunity in the outfield and making a case to relegate O’Neill to a fifth outfielder role upon his return.
While Mercado’s torrid hitting will certainly cool down, his speed and defensive ability give him value as a fourth outfielder. O’Neill has power and speed, but he hasn’t utilized either attribute to the level he’s shown in the past. His MVP-caliber 2021 season increasingly looks to be an outlier, and the Cardinals have expressed their frustrations with how O’Neill plays and the effort he gives.
Mercado is likely a finished product at age 28, and the Cardinals signified that they realized that after they promoted him instead of more exciting, high-ceiling prospects like Jordan Walker because they needed to know what they were getting. On the other hand, the Cardinals seem to continue to believe that there might still be more to O’Neill, and their insistence to keep giving him chances reflects a front office that is afraid to make another move that it will regret.
O’Neill’s trade value is not high at the moment, so the Cardinals might need to give him the treatment they intended to give Paul DeJong and make O’Neill the 26th man on the roster, only playing him about once a week. However, his inactivity obviously won't make him more desirable to other teams, so the Cardinals are in a tough position. It's a steep descent for a player who looked to be a future franchise cornerstone.
If Mercado can provide offense that is even decent for the rest of the season, he should tighten his grip on the fourth outfielder job at the expense of O’Neill. This is not how the Cardinals envisioned the outfield to look this early in the season after poor performances from O'Neill and Dylan Carlson, but a productive Mercado could lead the outfield closer to the results that were expected of it.