'The kid's good, man': Merrill making a splash with Padres

May 9th, 2024

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CHICAGO -- was one month shy of his 21st birthday when he made his Major League debut in the Seoul Series in South Korea on March 20. And if his first month in the big leagues is any indication, he’s here to stay.

Merrill has had a solid start to his Major League career, certainly when considering he only turned 21 on April 19 and graduated from MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects list last week.

“Solid. You couldn't ask for a better start,” Padres second baseman Xander Bogaerts said of Merrill’s first month in the Majors. “Maybe lately, [he] probably hasn't been playing the way he might want. But overall, I think it's [been] a really solid season for the young kid.

“He shows up every day, works hard, [is] prepared, focused. He’s a kid that brings a lot of energy, always ready, a gamer.”

In 38 games this season, Merrill has a .274/.326/.371 slash line, with four doubles, a triple, two homers and 16 RBIs. The 2021 first-round MLB Draft pick earned a spot on San Diego’s Opening Day roster, making the jump from Double-A San Antonio -- a level he reached for the first time in July 2023, playing 46 games.

What’s more, Merrill, who was drafted as a shortstop, made the Padres’ roster as a center fielder, a position at which he had no prior professional experience. He’s tied for third in MLB among qualified center fielders with 3 Outs Above Average.

“The kid’s good, man,” Bogaerts said. “He's really solid, and he’s surprised me in center field, for sure. I mean, for the little time that he's been playing out there -- infielder converted to an outfielder, a lot of talk [about] how hard that might be to do.

“So, props to him for working hard and maintaining that, because he's not just doing it on offense. It's also defense, and he can do it.”

For Merrill, it was important to show the Padres he was willing to do anything to make the team this spring.

“I want to be a piece of the team,” Merrill said. “If it means learning a new position, whether it’s center field or catcher, I'll do it."

Every player experiences peaks and valleys during the 162-game season. Merrill had a six-game stretch from April 24-May 1 during which he went 0-for-19.

In six games since, he’s hit .300 (6-for-20) with a .333 on-base percentage, one walk and three strikeouts. That free pass came in an impressive plate appearance in the sixth inning of Wednesday’s 3-0 win over the Cubs.

Merrill fell behind, 0-2, against Cubs starter Hayden Wesneski. He then fouled off a sweeper and laid off four consecutive pitches to reach base.

“It's the same at-bat,” Merrill said of his mentality in that spot. “You try to get the barrel on something, and if you miss it, you miss it. If you strike out, that’s a part of baseball, so nothing crazy. I wasn't thinking anything different. Just going in there with the same mindset.”

That mature mindset goes hand in hand with what has stood out to Mike Shildt. The Padres manager said he’s been impressed by Merrill’s ability to “not make this environment bigger than it is, which is way easier said than done,” as well as his response to the inevitable adjustments opposing teams have started to make against him.

“There's an adjustment that the league has made to Jackson,” Shildt said. “And the counter adjustment that Jackson's made back, staying [true] to who he is and what he is, and the approach he's doing to get a good pitch to hit has been really impressive as well.”

Merrill figures to get more comfortable as he continues to gain experience. So far, it’s hard not to be impressed.

“I kind of wanted to use the first half of the season to kind of get adjusted and get used to the travel, the play and the competition, obviously,” Merrill said. “It’s just been good to kind of learn more stuff along the way, so that the second half, playoff time comes around and we're ready to go. There's no holes, and we're ready to go and play a solid game.”