When the Indians sat down with center fielder Oscar Mercado before the offseason, the club was optimistic about his plans to put his struggles from 2020 in the rearview mirror. But after five weeks of Spring Training, Mercado hasn’t quite shown the level of improvement that he or the team was hoping for.
Prior to Sunday’s matchup against the Rangers, the Indians informed Mercado that he was being optioned to Triple-A Columbus. He will be joining the rest of the players at the club's alternate training site until Minor League Spring Training gets underway.
“He needs some time, and when I say ‘space,’ I mean not Major League games hanging over his head to get him back to where he can help us,” manager Terry Francona said. “We've seen it. He's seen it. He's felt it. Nobody's giving up on him, and we wanted to make sure he understood that.”
In 2020, Mercado played in 36 games and hit a mere .128 with a .348 OPS. After a strong rookie campaign in 2019, he often looked lost at the plate and said his mental state took a tremendous hit throughout the process. He spent time at the alternate training site last year, and it took until the offseason for him to get himself back on the right track, mentally.
“I felt like I was just constantly feeling sorry for myself, which is not something you want to do," Mercado said at the beginning of camp. "Instead of really taking the bull by the horns and attacking things the right way, I kind of shut down a little bit, mentally, and not being able to spend the time that I wanted with my family or being able to see them at games.
“You ask yourself, ‘Was this what I really worked for, all these restrictions and all these things we got to deal with?’ And that’s just not a good way of looking at it, and that’s one thing that I attacked this offseason was my mental preparation and just my mental toughness when it came to things.”
But when Mercado returned in 2021, he still couldn’t find the answer to his offensive struggles. In 10 Cactus League games, he hit .214 with two doubles, seven strikeouts and a .527 OPS. Now the team thinks the best plan is to get Mercado on a hitting program over at the alternate training site in order for him to focus on finding the swing that led to success in ’19.
“We talked to Oscar for a long time,” Francona said. “We didn’t just want to give him the news and get him out the door. We didn’t want him to feel like he was on an island. And I think mentally he has beaten himself up. And I think he kind of owned up to that, too, and that’s part of it. Now it’s easier said than done. The best way I know how to handle things mentally is to be so physically present and accounted for that you have something to fall back on because that helps you mentally.”
With just over one week of Spring Training remaining, the Indians have Bradley Zimmer, Ben Gamel and Amed Rosario left to evaluate in center field. Rosario will need more reps in the outfield before he’d get thrown out there in a regular-season lineup. That leaves Zimmer, who’s hit .304 with a .799 OPS in seven spring games, and Gamel, who’s batted .269 with an .849 OPS in 11 Cactus League games, to battle for the Opening Day job. And at some point down the road, the hope is that Mercado will be able to get himself thrown back into the mix.
“At the end of our meeting, I was really pleased,” Francona said. “I said, ‘Oscar, this can be an opportunity for you if you view it like that.’ And he said he did. And that was big. For today, I thought that was a great way to end.”