Mercado Keeps Conquering New Challenges
Shortstop grows into stardom after moving from Colombia
He didn't know it at the time, but when Frank Permuy put a small, nervous freshman at shortstop after removing the starter from the team, he was writing a potential first-round pick's name on the lineup card. That was a few inches and about 30 pounds ago for Oscar Mercado, but he caught on quickly and has grown to be one of the top high school prospects in the country.
"We pressed him into action early," Permuy, the head coach of Tampa's Gaither High, said about the current senior shortstop. "He was a backup guy so he stepped in. About the 10th game of the year he started for us and he's been starting every game since."
At 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, Mercado has a slight build, but it's the athletic frame scouts prefer, as he should add strength as he matures. He also holds their attention with his line-drive stroke, soft hands and strong arm.
One of the biggest challenges for high school players, whether it's moving on to college or professional baseball, is making adjustments and being able to handle adversity. Mercado learned to do that at an early age—he moved to the United States from Colombia when he was 8 years old.
"It was challenging with the language barrier," Mercado said. "My dad refused to let us watch Spanish-speaking TV. I was young so my brain was capable of learning it quickly. I picked (English) up in about six months."
Now Mercado is as fluent as if his first words were in English and he has gained the confidence to face any challenge. When he was thrown into the fire as a freshman, he was admittedly scared, but he went into every at-bat simply trying to put the ball in play, and by the time his first season ended, he was hitting over .310 with six stolen bases.
"He makes things look easy," Permuy said. "We told him as a freshman to only worry about defense, but he ended up hitting .300."
During his sophomore campaign, Mercado started to put more of a charge into the ball and collected his first extra-base hits, with four doubles and three triples on his way to batting .338. He followed that up with a .370 clip as a junior, helping Gaither reach the region finals before losing to eventual Florida 7-A state champion Venice High.
Pitchers have come to know the first-team preseason All-American by now, however, and they're doing what they can to avoid being beaten by him. Because of Mercado's stardom and a lack of depth in the Cowboys' lineup, pitches to hit—especially fastballs—are few and far between. He started the season as the leadoff hitter, but has moved to third to drive in runs and get more pitches to hit. When he does get a fastball in the zone, he tries to take advantage and drive it. Otherwise, he remains patient and accepts the free pass.
"It's on them," Mercado said. "I know I can run. I consider myself one of the best base-runners around. I know I can steal second and third, turning that walk into a triple."
So far, he was doing just that. In his first six games, Mercado was 5-for-16 with two doubles, five walks and nine stolen bases.
Early in his career, Mercado was just focused on playing for his high school. The thought of earning a scholarship to Florida State, being a top prospect and potential first-round pick in the draft never crossed his mind.
"I had no idea," he said. "I didn't even know about travel ball. I just wanted to play high school. I never once thought I would have these opportunities."
Mercado said the accolades and exposure really began to come on strong after his sophomore season. He traveled to Georgia with the Tampa Bay Warriors—along with Hernando High (Brooksville, Fla.) shortstop Christian Arroyo—to play in the World Wood Bat 16U National Championship and thrived. In one game, he went 4-for-4 with two runs, two doubles, a triple and home run.
Soon after his breakout performance, he latched on with Marucci Elite, a travel team based out of Louisiana that has quickly become a national power on the showcase circuit. As a rising junior at the World Wood Bat championship in Jupiter, Fla., Mercado stood out for his defensive prowess and line-drive stroke on a team that also included top prospects such as righthander Cody Poteet, lefthander Kyle Twomey, outfielders Corey Ray and Ty Moore, and infielders Chris Rivera and Blake Hennessey. Mercado went just 4-for-19 in the tournament, but two of his hits were doubles and he helped Marucci Elite win the championship.
Bringing It Home
As the spring season gets into full swing, scouts will put Mercado under a microscope to see if they can determine whether his bat will play in the professional ranks. But like Mercado, they'll have to be patient as opposing pitchers find ways to avoid the middle part of the plate. Meanwhile, he's sure to turn heads with his glove.
"You can see he's settling in," one scout said. "He's being patient. He's taking what's being given to him and not trying to do too much. He shows the ability to have bat speed and at the showcases he's always been a performer.
"I think with high school shortstops, nothing is a sure thing. With his actions and instincts, he's a guy that the industry will be able to dream on staying at shortstop. He has the ability to make throws from different angles and show a plus arm."
Every player handles the spring differently with so many scouts watching as the draft approaches, but as someone who has adapted to living in a foreign country and manning shortstop for four years, Mercado seems to have the right stuff.