Happy to be here: But determined to mash. (Sean Williams/South Side Hit Pen)
Yermín Mercedes is having the time of his life right now. He is currently slashing .350/.381/.850 with a three homers, including that mammoth grand slam above and a two-run shot that capped scoring at San Diego on Sunday. Nobody seems to be having more fun than him, and because of his bat and personality some Sox fans are clamoring for him to break camp with the White Sox.
But is that a smart decision, or even realistic? First off, let’s start with how far along Mercedes has come in a short amount of time.
The White Sox selected him in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft in 2017 from the Baltimore Orioles. His first contract was with the Washington Nationals, but they released him in 2014. That season, Mercedes spent time playing in two different independent leagues and earned his way back to affiliate ball with the Orioles. In total, from 2011-17, he only played 12 games in the high minors (Double-A, the highest level he reached).
Now, it wasn’t because of his bat that Mercedes was slowly moving up the minors — in terms of wRC+, he has had at minimum, an above-average season at each level, every single year; It was because of his defensive abilities.
From 2011-17, in affiliated ball, Mercedes was a catcher the majority of the time, when he was actually on the field— he would spend some time at first base and even got cups of coffee at both corner outfield spots, but if not catching, he was mostly a DH, which is probably why the Orioles did not protect him in the Rule 5 draft. In Mercedes’ final season with Baltimore, he only caught about 37% of games he played in, which was lower than his 2016 rate. That did change with the White Sox, though.
Maybe it was because the Sox did not really have fantastic catchers in their system (especially defensive catchers), but Mercedes’ time behind the plate ramped up. In 2018 with the Winston-Salem Dash, Mercedes played 77% of his games behind the plate, but again got some time out at first base. Last season, between Birmingham and Charlotte, the number fell to about 61%. That rate is still better than what he was getting with Baltimore and the Nationals, but it still did fall — and in Charlotte, Mercedes even added a couple games at third base.
Advanced numbers in the minors are not easy to find, and advanced catching statistics are even harder. Baseball Prospectus, which does keep track of advanced catching stats in the minors, actually liked Mercedes in 2018 and 2019. But coming off a season with only 61% of games played at catcher still is concerning as to how the club actually views him defensively. Mercedes caught in five of his first eight games this spring, but it is clear that the reason he’s on the 40-man roster and the cusp on the majors is because of the bat.
Yeah, the video is from 2017 but who cares, Mercedes has been able to hit at every level. But 2019 and so far into 2020 have been special.
Mercedes started out 2019 in Double-A with Birmingham, and was probably there too long. He slashed .327/.389/.497 for a 157 wRC+. Just so you all know, that wRC+ was actually slightly better than Luis Robert’s wRC+ (155) in Birmingham and rated 11th overall in the Southern League (min. 150 plate appearances). Mercedes crushed the ball in Birmingham. The power was there with .170 ISO, but remember, Double-A does not use the MLB ball, so Mercedes was not able to fully realize his power potential till Triple-A — and boy did it skyrocket.
Even with the MLB ball, Charlotte is a power-friendly park, but with it, it’s downright unfair for pitchers. As you saw in the video above, all Mercedes has to do is flick his wrists on pitches low and below the zone to clear the fence. His ISO with Charlotte in 2019 was a whopping .337, with 17 homers in just 53 games. Again, that .337 was not his batting average — it was his ISO, .337! In the International League, that number was tied at the top with a couple of notable power names, Aristides Aquino of the Reds, and Luis Robert (min. 200 plate appearances).
Obviously Mercedes’ success with the bat has continued this offseason. It did not stop with 12 games in the Dominican Winter League, and has continued in spring training. The only thing stopping Mercedes’ march to the majors right now is his lack of defensive ability. He is, for all intents and purposes, a 27-year-old designated hitter prospect on a team that already has Edwin Encarnación and José Abreu as defensive liabilities. On top of that, it seems like the former first round pick, Zack Collins, will get every opportunity to show he belongs, even if he also has concerns defensively.
Mercedes’ path to the majors has always been a hard one, but at least it is not improbable anymore. According to J.J. Cooper from Baseball America, it was just up to luck he was even able to stay in professional baseball after being released by the Nationals. In a story from November 2019, Cooper writes, “if [Mercedes] wasn’t a catcher, that likely would have been the end of the story. But because he was a catcher, he’d been brought over to the States for spring training before he was released. (Teams always need large numbers of catchers to catch bullpens at camp). Because he was in the States and had a visa, he was able to latch on to play in the independent Pecos League.”
Mercedes’ story is a wonderful one, and he will be on the South Side at some point this season. It may not be on Opening Day, but the inevitable injury will come and he should be one of the first up, especially if that injury is to Encarnación. It is possible Collins finally wears out his stay and Mercedes can come in and save the team with his bat, but the White Sox do love to give their top prospects and draft picks every chance they can. It is very possible the last two spots for this team go to Collins and Carson Fulmer, both guys who are at low points in terms of prospect luster.
Mercedes’ path is still an uphill climb to the majors, but nobody can say any longer that he doesn’t deserve it.