During the first official presser of the 2017 season at the Route 66 Rumble, Springfield Cardinals manager Johnny Rodriguez singled out three prospects when asked about the position players on the roster.
The first two mentioned were no surprise - Cuban defector Adolis Garcia followed by Eliezer Alvarez, making the jump over High-A Palm Beach.
The third position player was the St. Louis Cardinals' 2013 second round draft pick Oscar Mercado, a former bonus baby with a promising glove at shortstop, but a bat that had stalled to the tune of a .233 average through his first four seasons as a professional.
"Forget his average," Rodriguez said. "He has been retooled by George Greer to change his stance and his hand position. Toward the end, he was our hottest hitter in spring training."
The reworked swing
With help from the Cardinals minor league hitting coordinator, Mercado's mechanical adjustments were about shortening his swing in order to reach the result of utilizing his hands more effectively at the plate.
Mercado, who has always been an adept fastball hitter, said the adjustment has allowed him to see the ball better in addition to reacting and recognizing off-speed stuff while finding the barrel for those pitches in the process.
"That is something that has really helped me out a lot," Mercado added. "My previous swing was a lot longer. It was a very kind of like east-to-west. Now I am able to go straight to the ball and keep a short path to it."
Reaping the benefits of the reworked swing, the right-handed hitter is off the best start of his career with Springfield, pacing the Double-A offense with a .333 batting clip through nine games.
As a result, Mercado has worked his way back up to the top of the lineup card, hitting leadoff and even ripping his first Double-A home run to left field on Easter Sunday against the Midland Rockhounds.
The home run was also his first as a professional since August 1, 2015 when he was a member of the Low-A Peoria Chiefs.
Since his last long ball, Mercado's hitting took a downward spiral while he spent most of that span in the pitcher-friendly confines of the Florida State League. The 22-year old batted a troublesome .220 (555 at-bats) with only 31 of his 122 hits going for more than one base.
"It has all been a learning process," Mercado said. "It was a tough couple of years for me. At the end of the day, it happens. You just got to learn from it and move on. I am just glad the organization has kept believing in me and moving me forward."
The 22-year old isn't worried about the results being sustainable this early in the season.
“I am not trying to base anything off results because results can be misleading," he said. "I’m just trying to keep feeling good. Keep a positive mindset. Keep going with the process and trusting myself with it and whether the results add up or not that is beyond my control.
"I am just going to keep going out there and keep doing the same thing I've been doing," Mercado said,
Adjusting to the Texas League
Many say making the leap into Double-A from High-A is the most challenging one, but entering the Texas League can be a different animal which has proven time after time to break prospects more often than making them.
With eight teams in the league, intra-division opponents match up against each other 32 times while inter-division teams oppose 16 different games annually. This 140-game regular season enables the opposition to catch on to tendencies faster and adjust back to the competition.
Mercado, a hitter with a notoriously aggressive approach at the plate, will see his fair share of that, but getting acclimated is the first priority.
To take baby steps, Rodriguez inserted him in the nine-hole on Opening Day. Mercado has slowly worked his way to the primary lead-off hitter now.
"I think I have done a good job of swinging and being aggressive in certain situations," he said. "I have also done a pretty job of being patient and I have drawn a few walks already. I am seeing a lot of pitches and getting a lot of 3-2 counts.
"I owe a lot of my success early on to just being patient and seeing a lot of pitches. Just getting in hitters counts," Mercado said.
In the meantime, Mercado plans to stay within himself coming into a hitter-friendly league where his bat has a higher chance to play up.
"As I move up, I think I will be a gap-to-gap hitter," he said. "Right now, I like to stay up the middle and go where the pitch is. I have a tendency to get long at times which I am trying to get away from in BP.
"Obviously playing in a smaller ballpark, I have to keep a level-head and understand my game isn't driving the ball out of the park all the time. Just trying to stay short and stay within the gaps," he said.
A newfound position
Considered the top defensive shortstop and one of the likeliest to stick at the position from the 2013 draft class, Mercado was selected by the Cardinals No. 57 overall in the second round despite questions surrounding his spring performance with the bat in his senior year at Gaither High School in Tampa, Florida.
Fast forward three years later, the 22-year old had to move off the position at which he once ranked supreme to make way for shortstop and 2016 Midwest League midseason All-Star Edmundo Sosa, who was promoted to High-A Palm Beach last July 22.
Mercado was not hesitant in his reaction to moving off the position at which he had played his entire career.
"I saw it coming," he admitted.
He has taken the opportunity and run with it.
"I was actually really excited because I always really liked playing center field," Mercado explained. "Obviously, I like playing shortstop, but I wasn't able to consistently play there. Moving to center field has probably been my biggest blessing and is something I would say with no hesitation, I am really good over there."
"Whether the organization believes it or not, that is another thing. I am really happy I get a chance to play there every day and getting better at every day just working with all my coaches," he said.
So far in the outfield, Mercado has been nothing short of impressive with his outfield play, looking like a natural defender.
During the first homestand of 2017, the center fielder made three highlight reel type plays, including an exuberant full extension diving catch in the home-opener against Frisco last Thursday.
"I feel extremely comfortable out there," Mercado said. "It is definitely something that I go out there every day and I am in every pitch. I am trying to get to every ball. I am trying to not let anything drop.
"I have done a pretty good job at it so far," he said.
In his initial conversion to the outfield, Mercado said the biggest challenge was reading balls off the bat and whether "to stay still, read them, or first step back," which is an aspect former Cardinals Gold Glove Award-winning outfielder Willie McGee helped him tackle during minor league spring training camp.
Rodriguez has also had a helping hand in his transition to the outfield.
"J-Rod has me taking balls off the bat one round (of BP) with as much effort as I can," Mercado said. "I have to get used to stuff like that. They have all helped me a lot and giving me tips."
With little experience patrolling the outfield, Mercado will continue to refine his craft.
"I’m looking to get a little better running back on balls towards the gaps," he said. "Line drives right at me - knowing when to dive, when not to dive. So far, I have done a pretty good job of that. That is something I am still a little bit uncomfortable with, but I have only been playing there for a month and half going back to last year.
"The more I play there, the better I will get at it," Mercado said.
Refining stolen base success rate
Since entering the Cardinals system, Mercado has been one of the most prolific base stealers, becoming the first player in the organization to reach 50 steals (in 2015 with Peoria) since Papo Bolivar stole 51 bags in 2004 for Double-A Tennessee.
That said, the burner had troubles last year at Palm Beach with getting caught, stealing 33 bases in 55 chances (60% success rate).
"(I think that is a matter) of being young and just trying to go at all times thinking you are always going to make it," he said. "Obviously, the higher you go up, everyone gets better and smarter."
This spring, Mercado picked the brain of base-stealing guru McGee, who posted 352 cumulative steals over his 18-year big-league career, emphasizing finding the right counts to take the extra base.
At the new level, Mercado described how the quality of arms behind the plate are the same compared to the lower levels, but the pitchers focus more on controlling the running game.
"They know your tendencies, so it is more of picking the right situations to run on and picking my counts," Mercado said. "I probably wouldn't consider myself a guy that is going to steal 60 to 70 bases a year.
“I think by picking my counts and knowing when to run, I could definitely be a pretty productive base stealer," he said
Mercado looks to improve against the handedness of the pitcher to refine his base-stealing craft.
"Maybe reading lefties a little better would be something that I can go refine as the season goes on," he said. "Like I said, pitchers’ moves get better, especially lefties. It is just a matter of me picking the right situations.
"I feel like if pick the right situations, I should have a pretty good success rate," he said
Building off success
Despite a hot start, Mercado does not have a particular goal for the season.
Instead, he is looking to do, as the old cliché’ goes, what is best for the team.
"I would not necessarily say goals," Mercado said. "My goal, in general, is just to go out there and compete and help the team win.
"Hopefully, I am given a chance to be able to go out there every day and compete at a high-level,” he said.
All in all, the center fielder is looking to build off his early-season success and the struggles along the way are in the rearview.
"Yeah, I’m off to a good start," he added. "At the end of the day, I am just out there trying to perform to the best level that I can.
"Thankfully, the results have come my way, but I’m just looking to continue it as the year moves forward," Mercado concluded.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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