Good morning, Cardinals fans!
It’s good to be back in the chair today, typing away on an article for a team that I’ll admit I have not gotten to watch much of over the last few weeks. Between a cold, family visits, travel, and a crazy busy season at the ol’ real job, the Cardinals have sadly taken a back seat from me.
I’ll spend the week catching up on what I missed, which was some pretty good baseball. At least offensively.
As I was flying around Missouri doing all the things that I had to do – carrying my tissues and Sudafed with me – I occasionally flipped through Twitter and Facebook. I kept noticing the same name mentioned over and over again. OSCAR MERCADO!
“He must be having a good day,” I thought. “Good for Oscar!”
Then, “Well, he must be having a good WEEK! What in the world is happening?”
Then, yesterday, I saw five or fifty posts on the Cardinals’ social media speculating about what would happen to Mercado when Tyler O’Neill or Dylan Carlson returned. That came with the inevitable, “they can’t get rid of Oscar. They’ll have to trade someone else!”
We’ve seen this kind of thing before. Remember when Bo Hart was a future Hall of Famer? Do you all recall when Joe McEwing – current Cardinals’ bench coach – became Super Joe?
Maybe a more apt comparison for Mercado is Jeremy Hazelbaker. Do you all remember Hazelbaker?
He was one of those Spring Non-Roster Invitees who had exploded as a 27-year-old in AAA Memphis and turned a hot exhibition season into a roster spot. He did hit 12 homers and had a 102 wRC+ for the Cardinals as a part-time player in his one season on the roster.
Despite a 113 wRC+ in the major leagues – he had a small and successful stint with the Diamondbacks, too – he only earned 285 MLB plate appearances. Fatal flaws of high K totals, only mediocre power, and some defensive questions made him nothing more than a depth player for a very brief career.
But he and those names I mentioned earlier provide a valuable moral for their clubs: depth can make a difference!
The current outfield situation is a perfect case in point. A few weeks ago we were investing way too many keyboard keystrokes worrying about how to fix the outfield playing time situation. The Cardinals had so many outfielders that their best defensive player and former top prospect, Dylan Carlson, was maligned into the weak side of a platoon role. Surely he would be traded by the deadline. Alec Burleson, Jordan Walker, Lars Nootbaar, and Tyler O’Neill all had to see the field. Poor Juan Yepez, who has done nothing but hit since he reached the majors last season, was relegated to the Minor Leagues.
It was a problem. But it wasn’t. Because players get injured. And a position of strength yesterday can be a position of weakness today.
Well, it’s today. The Cardinals are dealing with a slew of injuries that have cut into their outfield surplus. Now Tommy Edman is routinely getting outfield time and, while I would normally object strenuously to putting our best defensive shortstop in a corner outfield position, it seems like a pretty good idea considering the current situation. (Yes, I still believe that Edman is a better defensive shortstop than DeJong.)
This is the exact reason why the Cardinals acquired Oscar Mercado.
We’ll jump into his performance this season. First, though, a little history.
Mercado was a Cardinals’ second-round draft pick back in 2013. Through the lower minors, Mercado was a speedster center fielder, with a disappointing hit tool, average walkability, and a little bit of power that hinted more could come (but might not).
2017 was his minor league breakout season. His power did develop. He smacked 13 homers and had a .140 ISO and a 114 wRC+. Not bad for a speedy glove guy.
The next season, 2018, he was having a decent season in Memphis when the Cardinals moved Mercado to the Indians for Connor Capel and Jhon Torres. It was a perfectly fine depth-for-depth, roster for non-roster trade. The Cardinals exchanged current outfield depth for future outfield depth, cleaning up their perpetually messy 40-man roster situation for some developmental upside.
Mercado made the most of his opportunity. He earned his debut with the Indians the next season and started hot. From mid-May through the end of June in Cleveland, Mercado hit .304/.352/.459 with a 115 wRC+. That small stretch of moderate success was enough to convince a certain segment of Caridnals’ fans that the Mercado was just another in the long list of organization misses. They didn’t know what they had. They couldn’t develop him like the Indians. They gave him away for nothing. We heard all of that and more.
The truth? Fans tend to make much out of the obvious highs and ignore the hidden lows. Mercado was a below-average player, with a wRC+ of 90 for the rest of the season.
From there Mercado experienced the highs and lows typical of a AAAA-caliber talent. He was optioned over numerous seasons. The Indians eventually designated him for assignment. Then the Phillies picked him up. And they designated him for assignment. That’s not the career path of a player that an organization missed on.
This spring he returned to the Cardinals on a minor league contract, serving as the center fielder for Memphis, who needed such a player, and as the backup, backup, backup, break-in-case-of-emergency outfielder for the MLB squad. While the Cardinals might have significant outfield depth, they lacked true depth in center. Mercado was the perfect kind of player to fill that organizational gap.
Here he is back in the majors. And he’s doing everything he can to remind those loud but small minority of small-sample-size fanatics that the Cardinals never should have given up on him in the first place.
As of Tuesday morning, Mercado had a .500/.500/.643 slash line with a .496 wOBA and a 221 wRC+ in 14 PAs. He has earned .4 fWAR so far. His BABIP is .500. He hasn’t struck out or walked yet. Ah, you’ve gotta love small sample size stat lines!
That leads me back to the beginning! Cue the speculation on who the Cardinals will get rid of to secure Mercado’s place in the lineup long-term:
There’s some playfulness in social media posts like this. But there’s also some seriousness to them and to the replies they receive. We love to dream on players, especially players that we’ve gotten to dream on in the past.
Dreams, however, are often so far from reality. Mercado now has almost 1000 PAs in the majors. His career slash line is .239/.292/.392 with a 6.2% BB rate, a .152 ISO, and an 83 wRC+. He has managed to hold on as an above-replacement-level player, with a 2.1 career fWAR. He has 26 career home runs.
That’s probably more than anyone hoped Mercado could provide when he was a 21-year-old disappointment with a 71 wRC+ in over 500 A+ plate appearances.
It’s just about what we should have expected from a 22-year-old in AA with a 114 wRC+ buoyed by a .348 BABIP.
When the Cardinals brought Mercado in to serve as system depth, I applauded the move. He provides some defense and speed, average walks, a little bit of power, and won’t be overwhelmed by Major League pitching. He can play center. He’s exactly the kind of player that a smart organization can make use of if things don’t go quite as expected with their Major League regulars.
Depth can make a difference. And keeping experienced players with flaws, like Mercado and even Motter around to ride the Memphis shuttle or DFA train as needed can help a team to weather inevitable storms. It’s a little different price/expectation scale, but I made the same argument about Paul DeJong entering the season. No one expected him to do what he’s done, but there was reason to believe he could provide solid defensive protection at shortstop, a position where the organization lacked expendable depth and a pop bat off the bench. That was a reasonable hope.
Depth can make a difference.
Mercado is doing exactly what the Cardinals hoped he could do if they ever needed him to do it. And more than that. But we shouldn’t expect him to continue to do things that he’s never been able to do for longer than short periods.
If ZiPS let Mercado play for the rest of the season, they’re predicting he would provide a .246/.306/.384 slash line with a 6.8% BB rate and a 93 wRC+. That’s a little better than his career numbers. And it’s a little above replacement level. The club can make that work during an injury-fueled positional crisis. But we certainly expect more from every single one of those outfielders listed above.
We can celebrate Mercado’s moment of glory. And we can hope that the performance and health of others will send him back to Memphis sooner rather than later.