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Can Oscar Mercado Defy Projections for the Indians Once Again in 2020?

Plenty of ink has been spilled this winter detailing concerns with the Cleveland Indians’ outfield. Finding everyday starters essentially requires the Tribe to pick among a giant pile of average, with bright spots few and far between.

When sifting through Cleveland’s crop of outfielders, fans often utter the phrase “at least Oscar Mercado is a sure thing” as some semblance of reassurance.

After all, he helped spark a dormant Indians offense when called up from the minors last May, at one point being discussed as a potential rookie of the year candidate.

As a result, Mercado is seen by many as the lone outfielder not carrying a massive question mark with him this spring.

Unfortunately, not everyone buys into that. In fact, projections don’t just have Mercado falling back to earth in 2020, they’re basically predicting he turns into a pumpkin. Both FanGraphs and Steamer expect him to be worth nothing more than one win above replacement this summer.

The Indians, who need whatever sense of reliability they can find in the outfield, are obviously hoping Mercado can once again buck his sub-par expectations.

In a sense, it’s not too surprising to see pessimistic numbers from prognosticators, as little was expected from Mercado in the first place.

His scouting report from Baseball Savant isn’t what you’d call inspiring, holding the struggles from his early days in the minors against him while predicting a ceiling as “an average hitter with just decent power and on-base ability.”

This context just makes his big-league debut with the Indians even more surprising.

Mercado finished the season slashing .269/.318/.443 and generating a WAR of 1.7. He didn’t walk a ton (5.8%) and his wRAA (0.3) and wRC+ (95) weren’t the stuff of legends. Still, he provided stability at the plate (.321 wOBA), on the basepaths (3.5 BsR) and in center field (9 DRS).

More impressive was just how much Mercado contributed for Cleveland with men on base.

While his wRC+ was only 75 in bases empty situations, said number jumped to 125 once the Indians had men on, and to 128 when runners were in scoring position. Similarly, Mercado boasted an underwhelming .685 OPS with the bases empty, and an .898 OPS with runners at second or third.

For an Indians team which badly needed to replace Leonys Martin and his 29.5% strikeout rate, Mercado gave them more than they could ask for.

Yet, despite such a solid debut, his 2020 projections are alarming. Frankly, the most flattering thing you’ll find is that he’s expected to slightly improve his walk rate. Outside of that, many of his predicted numbers are ugly.

Both FanGraphs and Steamer project a 2020 slash line of .256/.313/.402, with the most notable dip coming in Mercado’s slugging percentage. Likewise, each outlet sees his wRC+ dropping from 95 to 84, while his wOBA is expected to fall notably below average (.305). His wRAA, which was a hair above average last year, is expected to plummet all the way down to -7.7.

Heck, each outlet even predicts Mercado will become an average baserunner this season, with his BsR projected to drop to 0.8.

Basically, both FanGraphs and Steamer expect Mercado to give the Indians plenty of below average numbers in the season ahead.

Why, though?

Is the assumption that Baseball Savant was right? That Mercado has a low ceiling? That his 2019 campaign was a fluke?

Perhaps they viewed last August as proof his early season numbers were a mirage.

Mercado was frigid at the plate that month, logging a wRAA of -6.4 and a wRC+ of just 44. That this performance followed a similarly underwhelming July certainly lends credence to anyone who thought he spent the first half of 2019 punching above his weight class.

Then again, you can’t call out Mercado’s midsummer struggles without highlighting how well he bounced back in September.

After starting to pull the ball more frequently, his wRC+ (109), wRAA (2.2) and wOBA (.342) all significantly spiked. If August was when Mercado hit his rookie wall, September was when he figured out how to plow through it.

Still, his numbers down the stretch weren’t enough to convince prognosticators to bet big on him in 2020. Regression is expected for Mercado in practically every available category.

Obviously, the Indians believe September was indeed proof Mercado can exceed expectations, that he’s more than the average-at-best hitter everyone predicts him to be.

They better be right. The last thing they need this summer is to have the Achilles heel of their roster looking even more vulnerable than we thought.