TAMPA—In May, South Florida junior shortstop Kevin Merrell was featured on Tampa’s Fox-13 television affiliate, which had fun and went to the archives. It was 2008. Merrell’s Citrus Park all-star team was playing in the Little League World Series at Williamsport, Pa.
For Merrell, seeing the old clips was like an out-of-body experience. He struggled to remember many of the details. He did recall hitting a game-tying home run against Connecticut when Citrus Park was down to its final two outs and facing elimination.
“We came back to win, we got to stay for five more days and we missed some school,” Merrell said with a smile. “Those are tremendous memories.”
The tremendous memories have continued for Merrell. He has developed into a powerful force for the Bulls, who this season reached the 40-win milestone for the first time since 1996. Merrell was hitting .387/.468/.576 with six home runs and 18 stolen bases. He led the American Athletic Conference in batting heading into the postseason.
Merrell, who mostly played second base and left field during his first two seasons of college, made a seamless transition to shortstop. And that, along with his evolving offensive skills, has helped him climb draft boards all spring, becoming a likely first-day pick.
“Any time a team thinks you can play shortstop over second base or the outfield, that makes you more valuable,” coach Mark Kingston said. “He may end up being a guy who can play anywhere . . . That versatility is such a plus. His hands and speed allowed him to get by at second, but he was a little crude mechanically as an infielder. We gave him every opportunity to develop as a shortstop to take advantage of his great range. I consider him now to be an above-average shortstop. And that’s directly related to the work he has put in.”
Merrell, a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, has gotten stronger while remaining a top-of-the-scale runner, which has helped his range at shortstop.
“Kevin is how you draw it up—he has developed into a premium position and he’s everything you want from a talent, attitude and consistency standpoint,’’ Kingston said.
“I think his two greatest assets are his speed and hand-eye coordination. Ninety-nine percent of that is God-given, but a lot of people are given gifts and don’t take advantage of them. He has. He learned how to use his speed and quickness, offensively and defensively. He has combined strength with his hand-eye coordination to become an elite hitter. He’s going to really help somebody.”
— Joey Johnston is a freelancer based in Tampa.