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Sleeper Prospect: Oscar Mercado, OF/IF, St. Louis Cardinals

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Speedy youngster a name to watch in crowded system

Baseball: World Baseball Classic-Colombia at Canada Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Heads are always turned when a prospect comes along who plays both the outfield and the infield. With Oscar Mercado, however, that might prove a tad misleading. Last season the 23-year old was moved to the outfield full time. But there’s ample reason to presume he still has infield blood in him.

Born and raised in Tampa, Florida, Mercado was a second round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013. Selected 57th overall, he continued to play his high school position of shortstop exclusively until his third pro season in 2016.

That year, he ventured to center field for 38 games and also started a lone game at third base. The speedy Mercado had 88 stolen bases to his name from 2013 to 2015, including 50 steals for Low-A Peoria in 2015

Running has never been and barring any unfortunate injuries will likely never be a problem for Mercado. His bat, on the other hand, struggled with the pro transition. Outside of a solid showing in 2015 (.254/.297/.341 with the 50 steals), he had struggled to find holes in the defense.

Still, there was a lot to like from the high draft pick. Obviously the stolen bases, but his low strikeout totals and respectable walk totals resulted in an OBP far outweighing his batting average.

Before the 2017 MiLB season touched off, the Colombian native had the honor of being selected to represent his country in the World Baseball Classic. A small role didn’t stop him from using the experience in a big way.

When the regular season began, Mercado had moved to the outfield on a permanent basis. 108 of his 120 games for Double-A Springfield (St. Louis moved him up a level despite rehearsed struggles at High-A in 2016) were in center field with the majority of the remainder in left.

Mercado daps up Arozarena

Perhaps it was the move to the outfield or the energizing, confident promotion to the Texas League but Mercado had far and away his best pro season. He hit .287 with a .341 OBP while leading the league in stolen bases with 38, eight more than any other player.

After eight home runs in four seasons, he boomed up to 13 for the Cardinals, also driving in a career-high 46 runs.

The power-for-strikeouts approach around baseball was strong in Mercado’s game in 2017. He set a career high with power but also in punch-outs, striking out 112 times, 41 more times than he had ever before.

The rising trend in strikeouts is the only blemish amidst a rapidly improving portfolio for yet another Cardinals prospect flying under the radar.

After his triumphant 2017, Mercado was invited to the Arizona Fall League and stole six more bases in 22 games, hitting .264 and posting a .363 OBP (18:14: K:BB ratio).

His duplicity as both an outfielder and infielder hasn’t been touched upon since 2016 but it could be what separates him from several prospects St. Louis also has in his “talent range.” Cuban Randy Arozarena is a converted second baseman now toiling the outfield and the organization just traded Stephen Piscotty for two infield prospects (one who I really like) and still houses talents like Edmundo Sosa and a little further off lie Delvin Perez and Dylan Carlson among others.

But the speed tool and the emergence of average and some power in 2017 has placed Mercado in prime position to be the first of any to reach the big league club.