Phillies minor leaguer tabbed as potential fantasy relief ace by Baseball America

Newcomer Michael Mercado might end up being a hidden gem in the Phillies bullpen.

Philadelphia Phillies Photo Day
Philadelphia Phillies Photo Day / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages
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The Philadelphia Phillies have had great luck over the past couple of seasons with some under-the-radar trades and free agent signings.

Few will forget how Jeff Hoffman joined the Phillies bullpen with little fanfare but emerged as a go-to piece for important outs when the game was on the line for most of last season. Hoffman, who was signed to a minor league contract following his release in spring training by the Minnesota Twins, was finally able to tap into the talent that made him a first-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2014.

Fast forward to 2024. The early part of spring training is always full of these types of underdog stories. The former All-Star trying to regain his form, the career journeyman looking to latch onto a roster for another stint in the majors, and the top prospect who has so far failed to live up to his potential.

The Phillies had a few players like that in camp this spring. But right-hander Michael Mercado, who the team acquired in a minor November trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, might have the most upside of all of these players.

In five appearances in spring training, Mercado recorded a less-than-impressive 6.35 ERA in 5 2/3 innings while striking out 10 batters and walking only one. Those are certainly some mixed results in limited action. The Phillies liked what they saw in Mercado, but he was sent to minor league spring training when the team made a series of early camp roster cuts.

All told, the Phillies think they may have found a diamond in the rough with Mercado's ability to strike batters out.

Baseball America views Mercado as a future bullpen weapon for the Phillies

Baseball America ranked Mercado as one of its 10 Relief Pitcher Prospects To Know For 2024 Fantasy Baseball in its pre-season rankings. With Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham developing a reputation as someone who can find and fix flaws in under-performing but talented arms, Mercado represents one of his latest reclamation projects. Will he be successful?

Here's what Baseball America's Eli Ben-Porat had to say about the 24-year-old former second-round pick.

"His fastball provides an excellent base," explains Ben-Porat." It’s a high-velocity, high-ride pitch that will dominate at the top of the zone. This spring, Mercado is averaging 17.8 inches of induced vertical break (rise) on his fastball at 96.6 mph, about 1.9 inches more rise than a typical pitcher will get from a similar arm slot after adjusting for velocity (faster pitches have less time to rise)."

Ben-Porat highlights Mercado's lowered arm slot compared to last season, and the ride the pitch is still getting, which should help his fastball play up and be a quality MLB pitch if he can hit the zone with it.

The results in the minor leagues have not translated to success so far at the upper levels. Following his selection in the 2018 Draft, Mercado underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019 and did not pitch at all in the shortened 2020 season. Finally reaching Triple-A last season, his 4.99 ERA seems worrisome, but Ben-Porat thinks Mercado found the feel for a pitch that he can throw for strikes consistently.

"Mercado throws a pitch that is classified as a cutter, but it’s very similar in shape to a gyro slider (a pitch that is mostly gravity and seam-shifted wake movement)," writes Ben-Porat. "It performed exceptionally well last year and was the pitch he was able to throw for strikes. Sliders are typically great pitches when thrown as hard as Mercado throws his cutter, meaning there may be some more potential for this pitch if he makes it into a true gyro slider, though it remains a potentially plus pitch as is and should play at least average with the current shape. We have him as throwing both a slider and a cutter in the minors, though the shapes are very similar."

Mercado's curveball is his best swing-and-miss-pitch, with a 60 percent whiff rate, according to Ben-Porat, but he needs to improve at throwing it for strikes.

Will Mercado's three-pitch mix translate to success as a high-leverage reliever in the majors? The jury is still out on that, and before we find out, Mercado will likely have to prove that he can throw these three pitches consistently while showing sustained success during his second stint in Triple-A. Mercado is a low-risk, high-reward acquisition. Everybody loves an underdog story, especially in Philadelphia.

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