Good game last night, huh? The Cardinals busted out the big boy bats, Jaime was awesome yet again, and the Cards became the first team in baseball to reach 80 wins. They're no longer hitting these milestone totals with the kind of lead time over the rest of the league that I would like to see; the Royals are only three games shy of 80 wins, and the Pirates already have 75. Nonetheless, it's still fun when your team is the first to ___ wins, and especially so when you can fill that blank in with a whole bunch of different numbers throughout the season.
You know, I've been thinking lately about shortstop. Jhonny Peralta is under contract for two more seasons after this one, for an increasingly affordable salary, but let's face it: he isn't getting any younger. And watching Jhonny struggle for a fair while now has had me thinking a bit about what the shortstop position looks like when ol' Misplaced Aitch rides off into the sunset.
So I thought this morning we could look at two of the more prominent shortstop prospects the Cardinals have in the system right now. John wrote about Aledmys Diaz, the Cards' first foray into Cuban waters, yesterday, and so I'll leave that topic there. Besides, Diaz looks to me like a potentially very interesting utility infielder in the making (and hopefully an upgrade over H.P. Lovecraft's "The Kozmac Horror at Dunferry"), but probably not a long-term starting shortstop solution. I'm picking out the two guys who, at this moment, look to me like the best bets to be starters at the position: Edmundo Sosa and Oscar Mercado.
5'11", 170 lbs, Bats Right, Throws Right
Born 6th March, 1996 (Age 19.5)
I actually made my way to a Johnson City game a little less than a month ago. I was on my way back from a Carolina vacation, and it was an easy enough trick to reroute through Johnson City. I only caught one game, sadly, and had only my phone as far as video goes, so I'm not bringing you any new footage of the JC Cardinals, unfortunately.
I should also say that Sosa went 2-3 with a double and a walk the night I saw the Cardinals play Bluefield, so I came away with a decidedly positive impression. I think I'm fairly good at judging tools and skills independent of results by now, but take any grains of salt you feel necessary due to small sample size caveats and just general bias.
First off, physically Sosa just plain looks like a shortstop. I mean that both in the body sense and the kinetic sense; he is built pretty much exactly as you would expect a shortstop to be built, and he moves very much like one as well. He's still very wiry at this point, and it doesn't look as if he's going to get a whole lot bigger. By the time he reaches the big leagues (if, in fact, he does), he'll probably be closer to 180 or 185 than the 170 he's listed at now (and that looks fairly accurate), but I can't imagine him being any bigger than that. He simply doesn't have the frame to support anything approaching 200 lbs.
In the field, he has that quick first step you can't entirely teach, and appears to have above-average range to me. Admittedly, I only saw him make three plays (maybe four; I'm thinking he may have grabbed a ball up the middle while I was doing something on my phone), in game action, but he made all three with plenty to spare, and made them look easy. He throws pretty much straight over the top, which I tend to like, and the arm has some real oomph in it. The only play he made that wasn't exactly routine was to his right, ranging into the hole between short and third, and he made it look much simpler than it was. He set his feet and opened up on the throw, showing the arm off a little, and it looked good. He didn't go for the flashy jump and throw or anything of the sort, playing it closer to Shawon Dunston than Derek Jeter, and got the runner by five feet in spite of the play being fairly difficult.
Side Note: I lucked out and saw Ronnie Williams thrown the game I was there, and he looked phenomenal. I never did get a look at any radar gun readings, but he was definitely throwing hard, and righthanders in particular didn't want any part of his fastball. He was working hard in on them, and everything was down. The changeup was wicked as well, and he threw it to both right- and left-handed hitters. The curve...was not so good that particular outing, and he kind of scrapped it after the first couple innings, just going fastball-change for the rest of his night, and looked damned good doing it. Williams has struggled a bit with the walks this year, but he was commanding the movement on his fastball really well that night.
At the plate, I really like what Sosa does. The swing is balanced, with a little leg kick, and he appears to be very comfortable going to the opposite field. The double he hit was a scorched line drive over the head of the left fielder that he turned on, but he also singled on a pitch down and away, taking it to right field on the ground. He also just missed another extra-base hit on a line drive to right that hit about three feet foul later in the game, ultimately striking out on a high fastball. Overall, I was impressed; the bat speed looks very good, and he's not cheating to try and pull everything for power. This is an exciting young hitter.
For the season, Sosa has a line of .316/.384/.511. That ISO near .200 might look a little surprising, given his relatively modest stature, but having seen him in person, I don't think it should. He's much stronger than you might think from the listed height and weight, and there's a lot of pop in his bat. It's a little like watching Kolten Wong hit, really; Sosa doesn't take quite as vicious a hack, but there's a similar kind of whip in his swing. I actually like Sosa's swing a little better overall, in fact, I think, although I freely admit that's based on an extremely brief look.
Sosa's walk rate this year, having played exclusively for Johnson City, is 7.1%, while his strikeout rate is 16% even. The walk rate is nearly the same as he posted last year in the Gulf Coast League, but the K rate is up from 12.4%. Still, those numbers aren't bad. Given that he has plenty of bat speed and a willingness to let the ball travel, rather than trying to get out in front and yank everything to the pull side, I don't think Sosa is going to struggle going up the ladder with strikeouts too very much. He'll have moments when the breaking stuff he sees gets better, I'm sure, but this isn't a player whose swing looks to me to have any major flaws, nor does his approach.
The first we heard of Sosa was after he put up a remarkable 150 wRC+ season in the Dominican Summer League two summers ago, with the most remarkable part of all being a 22 BB to 15 K ratio. While that level of plate approach hasn't completely carried forward, after seeing Sosa live, even in a crazy small sample, I'm even more excited about him than I was before. There's real extra-base power here, I think, and a capacity to play the shortstop position at what looks like a high level to me. The arm and range are both above-average, and he's capable of hitting the ball hard to all fields with a real idea of what he wants to do at the plate.
Is Edmundo Sosa a major league shortstop? Well, he's playing in short-season ball at nineteen years old, so of course it's far too early to answer that question. But, gun to my head (imagining some inexplicable scenario in which a gunman is holding me hostage, demanding prospect opinions in lieu of material goods), I would say yes, he is. And potentially a quite good one. His line is good for a 147 wRC+ at the moment, and considering the buggywhip swing I saw on display, I'm not shocked he's beating up on Appy League pitchers by lashing line drives all over the field. His BABIP is high, at .356, but I'm tempted to say that's more a result of him just being too good a hitter for the league and less simple good fortune.
6'2", 180 lbs, Bats Right, Throws Right
Born 16th December, 1994 (Age 20.75)
Now here is a potentially more interesting player even than Sosa, in spite of the fact Oscar Mercado is probably a less interesting player, if that makes any sense. Maybe a less intriguing player, is what I should say, which makes him a potentially more interesting case to look at. Where Sosa is interesting because the tools are loud and showing up in games, in the form of above-average pop, particularly for the position, and hard contact all over the field, the case for Oscar Mercado to be the second-best shortstop prospect in the Cardinal system (again, excepting Aledmys Diaz, who just feels like a slightly different category of player to me), is based on some much less obvious sorts of indicators.
Unfortunately, I haven't gotten to see Mercado play in person this year, so my thoughts on him are by necessity a bit more removed than on Sosa. I'm hoping to get to Peoria before the minor league season ends; it isn't really all that difficult a trip to make from St. Louis, and I have no excuses as to why I haven't gone yet. Hopefully I'll get there before the Chiefs are done for the year.
Mercado is just over a year older than Sosa, and is playing in full-season ball for Low A Peoria, which gives him a leg up in that category. He was a second-round pick for the Cardinals in 2013, and fell primarily because he didn't hit much at all his senior year of high school. Ranking him on defensive tools alone, Mercado would have been the first high school shortstop off the board that year, and probably would have gone well ahead of most college players as well. The questions about the bat, however, were loud enough to push him down into the second, where the Cardinals took him and paid him an overslot bonus to get him into the system.
At the time of the draft, I was very lukewarm on Mercado. I didn't think he was going to hit. The swing was kind of ugly, with a lot of head movement and a tendency to just sort of jump at everything, and it isn't very often you see a player not hit in high school and then turn it around in the pros, even with draft pressure as a possible excuse. I just didn't see Mercado hitting much at all.
And here's the thing: Oscar Mercado, to this point, kind of...hasn't really hit. He hasn't really fallen flat on his face or anything like that; this isn't a failed hitter to the point of looking at a pitching conversion, a la Sam Tuivailala, but a player putting up an ~80 wRC+ in short-season ball is not exactly inspiring all the same.
A funny thing happened, though, on the way to Oscar Mercado being just another middle infield prospect who can't hit. Namely, Oscar Mercado just might be figuring out how to hit.
His first season in pro ball, playing in the Gulf Coast League, Mercado didn't hit, but did walk a fair amount, to the tune of a 9.1% walk rate, which was much higher than I would have expected given the type of hitter he had shown himself to be pre-draft. However, he also struck out over 20% of the time and posted a well below-average BABIP of .262, which could be bad luck, but was more likely simply a result of not making any kind of hard contact at all.
I was intrigued by the patience. I had not expected it.
Last year, playing at Johnson City, Mercado saw his walk rate fall a fair amount, from 9.1% to 7.3%, which was discouraging. However, he also saw his strikeout rate drop significantly, from 21.0% to 13.5%, which is kind of a big deal. Sure, it's still a low level, but this is a player not known for his hitting, moving up a level, and making more contact. The quality of contact still appeared to be quite low, as he posted a .252 BABIP and .082 ISO, so this was not a guy driving the ball. Then again, he was making contact, which was encouraging, so you take the bad with the good. Also, there was this: Mercado stole 26 bases in just 60 games at JC, while only being caught seven times. Stolen bases are obviously not enough to get a player to the big leagues by themselves, but they're also not nothing, particularly when you consider the current offensive environment of baseball.
Which brings us to this season, which has seen Mercado move up to a full-season club for the first time in his career, still shy of his 21st birthday, and cut his strikeout rate even further, to a near-elite 11.8%. He's also bumped his BABIP to .289 and his ISO to .092, both of which indicate there's a little bit better contact being made. Okay, so an ISO below .100 is still definitely nothing to write home about, but it's a positive trend. And when you take it with the improved BABIP and excellent contact rate, Oscar begins to look more...intriguing.
The bad this year has been the fact his walk rate has fallen off a cliff, dropping all the way to 4.8%. It's tough to tell what, if anything, that tells us about Mercado's plate approach; it's possible he's just swinging -- and making contact -- early in every count, to the point he never walks or strikes out, simply because he never has a chance. It's also possible he's simply seeing pitchers with better command who are challenging him in the zone because he lacks the functional power to scare them away from the middle of the plate, but is holding his own rather than being overmatched. I kind of feel it's maybe more the latter, but I could be wrong.
All of the numbers for Mercado this year add up to one pretty important number: 92. That's his wRC+ for the season, which means that Oscar Mercado, for being such a project hitter coming out of high school just two years ago, is playing in full season ball at 20 years old and is not far away from being a league-average hitter. And that's not league average for a shortstop; that's league average for hitters, period. Which is nothing to sneeze at when the player in question is, in fact, a shortstop, and potentially a very gifted one in the glove department.
Speaking of the glove, the reports on Mercado have been slightly less glowing than you might expect, given the pedigree, and the error totals have been fairly ugly. However, I would caution everyone against reading too much into that, particularly the errors. Until proven otherwise, I consider error totals in the low minors absolutely meaningless; after all, we saw Pete Kozma himself commit tons of errors in the lower levels of the minor leagues, and while Pete Kozma may occasionally feel like a scourge upon the fanbase of this club, I don't think anyone would ever argue that he is anything less than a stellar defender at shortstop.
There's one other really interesting thing about Mercado: speed. Oscar Mercado is, to put it lightly, a stolen base threat, pretty much every time he gets on base. Now, admittedly, players are much more likely to run in the minors than they are at the major league level, for a variety of reasons, but even so, the totals are startling. Having taken 476 plate appearances this season, Oscar Mercado has stolen 49 bases. He's been thrown out 18 times, giving him a 73% success rate, which is solidly above the break-even point. One would hope he could refine his game even further, and boost that rate up closer to 80%, but even where it is it's something remarkable. That's 49 singles or walks turned in to doubles, or doubles turned in to triples. Basically, Oscar Mercado is doing everything he can think of to turn himself into Dee Gordon, and while that may not sound like the most amazing thing in the world, Dee Gordon himself has become a pretty remarkable big leaguer. Admittedly, the slap-and-run, low walk, low strikeout profile is usually more suited to left-handed hitters than righties, but even so, the fact Mercado is creeping toward league-averageness as a hitter by eliminating strikeouts and adding substantial value with his legs makes him a much more intriguing prospect to me than he was coming into the season.
Of course, much of what Mercado could be hinges on his ability to play the position, and I'm still a believer in that aspect. He had amazing range coming out of high school, and I have a feeling at least a fair number of his errors are thanks to that ridiculous range combining with some ill-advised throws to create a negative impression where there should really be a positive. But, I could be wrong.
The bottom line is this: in the Cardinals' farm system, there is one shortstop prospect that clearly stands out above the others, and that's Edmundo Sosa. But there's also another kid, a Florida kid taken straight out of high school just two years ago, who is making himself into a rather intriguing prospect in his own right, but doing it in a much subtler, harder-to-notice way than Sosa, who is simply hitting the baseball quite hard this year.
I was a skeptic of Mercado at the time he was drafted, and for the most part to this point it would look as if that skepticism was well-founded. And yet, I find myself looking at the direction he's going, and thinking that maybe, just maybe, it will turn out I was wrong about him, even if the way he gets there doesn't look much like we thought it was going to.