CLEVELAND -- The Indians left Spring Training in March with Jake Bauers, Leonys Martín, Tyler Naquin, Greg Allen and Jordan Luplow on their outfield depth chart, leaving Oscar Mercado behind at Minor League camp.
There was really nothing more the 24-year-old could have done. For a guy who was expected to be a solid outfielder with plus speed to accompany his inconsistent bat, Mercado instantly surprised his coaching staff, hitting .400 with three homers, nine RBIs and a 1.165 OPS in his spring campaign.
At that point, Mercado was ranked No. 19 in the Indians’ Top 30 Prospects by MLB Pipeline and he was fresh off a winter in which he voluntarily spent time with instructors in Cleveland to work on his swing. That extra work paid off enough to almost earn a spot on the Opening Day roster.
“He’s in a good place,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of Mercado when they optioned him in March. “He’s a smart kid, he plays the outfield well, he can run, he’s revamped his swing. His future should be bright.”
Mercado played in 30 games in Triple-A before he got the call to show just how bright his future may be.
What Went Right?
When Mercado arrived at Guaranteed Rate Field on May 14, Francona mentioned that even if his time at the big league level was short, he’d be able to get all of his firsts out of the way. Little did everyone know the success he was going to have.
Through his first 39 games, Mercado hit .314 with an .837 OPS, then had one hit in his next 25 at-bats. At a point in which any rookie could easily crumble, the Indians young outfielder bounced back to hit .314 with a .928 OPS over his next 86 at-bats. Any time he started to slip, Mercado was able to quickly figure out how to rediscover his swing.
“I think at the end, it's just knowing that stuff like that is going to happen in this game,” Mercado said. “… You're not going to be perfect all the time, but one thing you can control is your effort, and that's something I tried to always give when I was out there.”
The rookie went from getting squeezed out of the big league roster in March to owning the second spot in the Indians’ batting order as he became the team’s everyday center fielder.
“I don't think anyone knew that,” Mercado said. “That's just how baseball work sometimes. You never know what's going to happen. A lot of things can go on during the season, and I was thankful to get a chance.”
What Went Wrong?
Even with a season of a lot of highs comes a few lows. On top of his 0-for-17 stretch in the Tribe’s final five games of the year, Mercado showed his inexperience in the outfield from time to time. Certainly, he proved just how impressive he can be with his glove, making a handful of plays that will be shown on highlight reels for years to come. But there were stretches like the three straight games in New York where he committed three errors -- in left field, not center -- and was kept out of the lineup for the next two contests.
“I think he still has a lot to learn, which is not a knock on him,” Francona said. “He's young and kind of raw. I think there are things he can do that will even be better than what we've seen, and I'm looking forward to that. We talk about all the time, about knowing the league and knowing what they're trying to do to you or game situations -- if we're down four, leading off an inning, not swinging at the first pitch. Those are little things, but those are things he'll get better at and it'll make him an even better player. I'd say it's an understatement that we were excited about him.”
Speaking of highlight-reel plays …
The Indians were two outs away from holding onto a two-run victory over the White Sox to sit a half of a game behind the A’s and Rays, who were tied in the American League Wild Card standings. With the bases loaded, Eloy Jimenez laced a line drive into center field that looked like a guaranteed base hit -- so much so that the runner on third didn’t even bother to tag up. Mercado hustled back, leaped, snagged the ball and tumbled to the ground to save the game.
“The greatest catch I’ve ever seen,” teammate Franmil Reyes said. “And at that moment, we needed it. That was very impressive.”
Mercado set the bar pretty high for himself in his first Major League season. What exactly do the Indians need out of him for next year? Mercado will need to take some strides in improving his defense and the Tribe will need to make him the everyday center fielder rather than shifting him around the grass. And despite his offensive success this season, he ended the year -- like the rest of the team -- completely out of gas. With enhanced defense and maybe a routine to keep his consistency throughout the lengthy season, Mercado could look at an even better sophomore campaign.
“Now I know myself better and I'm going to work on what makes me a better player,” Mercado said. “I'm going to try to work on my strengths. … I'm going to do things that make me successful and I'm going to try to work on those things to become more consistent with those things and come back next year a better player.”