Editor's Note: Red Baron has compiled this year's top prospects in three parts, which can be found by clicking on Part I, Part II, and Part III. The post below is a portion of those massive posts, focusing in on a single prospect at a time, which should make a search of any one prospect easier to find. All of our 2016 prospect coverage and write-ups can be found at the Viva El Birdos 2016 Prospects hub.
#19: Oscar Mercado, SS
Opening Day 2016 Age: 21
2015 Level: Low A Peoria Chiefs
Relevant Numbers: 11.9% K rate, .087 ISO, 86 wRC+, 50 SB
So, what's so great about this guy?
I was not a big fan of the Cardinals spending a high draft pick in 2013 to take Mercado, then a high school shortstop with an extremely questionable bat. I was even less a fan of them going well over slot to buy the Florida product out of his college commitment, thinking both the money and, especially, the draft slot could have been better used on a player with a more realistic chance at contributing.
Since that time, Mercado has done very little to invalidate my concerns at the time, with a wRC+ in the 80s at all three minor league affiliates for which he has played. He's also racked up huge error totals, which is perhaps more disappointing, and certainly more surprising, given at the time of the draft his glove was seen as having carrying tool potential.
And yet, I find myself very interested in Mercado, and actually more optimistic about him now than I was two years ago, even if I'm not entirely sure why.
Actually, it's not completely true, that I don't know why. I do know why; Mercado is still possessed of the remarkable physical gifts that made him a potentially explosive defender at shortstop, and appears to be developing into an extreme contact hitter as time goes on. There's value in a player capable of putting the bat on the ball, and Oscar has done that more and more the longer he's been in pro ball, to the point his strikeout rate is approaching the kind of numbers we just almost never see in the game currently. Combine that with a huge arm at shortstop, elite-level range, and speed that translates into damage on the basepaths, and there is a way to look at Oscar Mercado and see a well above-average major league player. I didn't necessarily feel that way at the time he was drafted, even though he already had the potentially elite defense -- and, really, was probably seen as more of a sure-thing defender then.
Mercado's game, as a whole, while moving in an intriguing direction, remains an enigma in many ways. He has elite range, arm strength, and hand speed in the field, yet makes a huge number of errors. Part of it is the classic situation of a player who gets to everything simply having far more chances to make mistakes, but that isn't the whole explanation. Mercado's fundamentals are not very good; he throws from all angles, rather than setting his feet and consistently delivering the ball across the diamond, making him inaccurate. He fields with what might be termed an excess of flair at pretty much all times, with lots of movement, pounding of the glove, and showy flourishes the order of the day. I very much admire a player who injects a certain amount of showmanship into his craft, but Mercado plays shortstop like a Harlem Globetrotter dribbles, with the problem being he ends up making unforced errors because he's so inconsistent with his approach.
At the plate, while the contact skills are hugely encouraging, it's also an extremely aggressive approach that limits walks, thus limiting his ability to get on base. There's not much power, either, though Mercado will occasionally show plus pop in his wiry-strong frame when he connects just right. Still, this will probably always be a low-ISO hitter, and so the burden on his ability to make contact will be huge, and his dependence on the BABIP gods to get on base similarly so.
There's a lot to like about Mercado's potential, and I say that as someone who did not think much of him from the outset. Even now, though, after two and a half seasons in pro ball, he needs a tremendous amount of polishing, of rounding off the sharp edges and trying to develop consistency, before he can even think of being a real contributor at the major league level. It's tough to say I have confidence he'll get there, but I will freely admit to being fascinated by what could be.
Player Comp: Dee Gordon, as a middle infielder with an extreme contact approach, disruptive speed on the bases, and a glove that contributes plenty of value to his overall package. Brendan Ryan has some definite similarities, as well, though he never made the impact on the bases a guy like Gordon does, and hopefully Mercado might.