By Jack Stephens, from Cardsblog.com
As a second round pick, expectations are always high. Such players usually have huge upside, the potential to fly through their respective minor league system. Put simply, if you are picked inside of round 3, you are expected to pan out.
With Oscar Mercado, things did not go according to plan. A second round pick back in 2013, the high-school prospect had huge promise. With great athleticism, a nice frame, and a solid high school career at Gaither (Fl.), things were looking up. Obviously, there are adjustments to be made, but expectations were still high. For the first four years of his career, he certainly did not meet them.
To start out, Mercado struggled in the Gulf Coast League, slashing .209/.290/.307 in 163 at-bats. The very next year, the organization expected a large leap, a series of improvements based on a solid sample size of professional at-bats. To put it lightly, Mercado made no such leap. In fact, he remained relatively stagnant, slashing .224/.303/.306 during the 2014 season.
Despite little improvement, the Cardinals promoted Mercado to single A in 2015. In his best season yet, Mercado hit .254, driving in 44 runs along the way.
Although most Cardinals fans will be familiar with Jack Flaherty, I feel obligated to begin the piece with a short biographical section. No matter your knowledge, the context is always useful. Flaherty is a product of Harvard Westlake, a storied Southern California high school known for producing top-knotch athletes.
While this definitely marked an improvement, the Cardinals surely expected more. 2016 brought such an opportunity, a chance to put it all together. Unfortunately, Mercado regressed, having his worst season to date in high A ball. Striking out 71 times in 442 at-bats, Mercado slashed .215/.296/.271, a discouraging line to say the least.
Four full years into his career, it seemed as if Mercado was set to define himself as a disappointment. I understand that is a harsh statement to make, but it seemed like time was running its course. 4 years in, Mercado was seemingly right where he started.
For a young prospect, that is a daunting position to inhabit. Regardless of the discouraging history, the Cardinals made an interesting move. Instead of keeping Mercado in high A, a level in which he struggled mightily, they placed him in AA to start the 2017 season.
Somehow, some way, Mercado is thriving. After hitting .215 just a year ago, he is seemingly an entirely different player. Through 32 games, Mercado is (statistically speaking) the Redbirds best player. In 132 at-bats, he has slashed .333/.405/.515, a line that does not come close to resembling one of its historical counterparts. Put simply, Mercado has seemed to figure it out.
In his fifth season as a professional, something clicked. Looking further into his stats, Mercado has swiped 12 bags, hit 4 home runs, and hit 6 doubles. Interestingly, his 4 home runs (through 32 games) matches a career high set in 2015, in which it took him 472 at-bats to hit the same number.
What was promised to be a tight race for the third-baseman's job on the Cardinals has turned into a blowout. After performing extremely well in Spring Training, Jhonny Peralta struggled out of the gate before being placed on the disabled list.
Obviously, Mercado is playing the best ball of his career. This is indisputable. Before arriving at some takeaways, I would like to point out one discouraging statistic. Quite simply, Mercado strikes out a lot. Through his first 132 at-bats, he has 36 strikeouts, good for 27.2%. According to Fangraphs.com, such a percentage qualifies as "awful."
As I see it, this statistic is quite interesting, especially considering Mercado's average of .333. Quite honestly, it is extremely impressive that he has maintained such a high average while striking out so much. At the same time, though, this number has to go down, especially as he begins to see better pitching at higher levels.
Mercado's success allows for two main takeaways. First of all, and most importantly, this is a perfect example of baseball's unpredictability. No matter how much a player struggles, all it takes is one hot streak, sometimes even one at-bat to alter one's mindset. A mental game at heart, Mercado's story perfectly illustrates the value of patience and positivity.
The Cardinals front office stuck to the plan despite his struggles, keeping faith in his talent and ability to adjust. While nothing is guaranteed from here on out, Mercado's success sheds positive light on both himself and the organization. Quite simply, Mercado showed great resilience, and the Cardinals showed great patience. Together, their second round pick is finally panning out.
Second, Mercado's success complicates the state of Harrison Bader. Previously the premier outfield prospect within the system, Mercado presents some competition. I am by no means saying he is better, but trade possibilities with Bader have now become a whole lot more interesting. At the same age (22), perhaps Mercado will make the Cardinals feel more comfortable dealing Bader.
Bader aside, Oscar Mercado's progress is extremely exciting. From this point forward, look for him to prove himself as a consistent player, one with the ability to perform for a full professional season.
This whole Cardinals season seems a bit off. The team started poorly, but we believed that would change. Now they're winning games, but in unconvincing fashion. Mike Leake, Trevor Rosenthal, and Jedd Gyorko are good. Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, Brett Cecil and Seung-hwan Oh are struggling.
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