Phillies quietly creating more quality starting pitching depth in Triple-A

Another quality starting arm has emerged for the Phillies in Lehigh Valley.
Philadelphia Phillies minor league pitcher Michael Mercado.
Philadelphia Phillies minor league pitcher Michael Mercado. / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

The Philadelphia Phillies front office made it a point this past offseason to add more starting pitching depth to the organization in a series of minor league deals and under-the-radar trades. The addition of right-handed pitcher Spencer Turnbull has looked like a steal for the Phillies following a successful series of starts filling in for Taijuan Walker.

When the Phillies acquired 24-year-old right-hander Michael Mercado from the Tampa Bay Rays for Adam Leverett in November, the swap of two unheralded minor league pitchers between the two clubs barely generated headlines in the baseball universe. Selected in the second round of the 2017 MLB Draft, Mercado was coming off an unremarkable 2023 season in which the former top prospect put up uninspiring numbers in Double- and Triple-A.

While his power arm seemed to bounce back nicely from Tommy John surgery in 2019, Mercado still had room for development as the Rays bounced him back and forth from the starting rotation to various bullpen roles. In 52 appearances (two starts), Mercado went 4-3 with a 4.79 ERA, including six saves in 10 opportunities. In 62 innings, Mercado struck out 95 batters while walking 35, finishing the season with a 1.43 WHIP. The 12 home runs he allowed was an obvious problem.

Mercado flashed moments of brilliance during his limited time this year in spring training with the Phillies. He recorded 10 strikeouts and only walked one batter but left major league camp with an ERA of 6.35 after allowing eight hits in his five appearances.

The Phillies saw glimpses of a pitcher who could help the big league club at some point, but it was clear that some more time spent in Triple-A would be necessary.

Phillies quietly creating more quality starting pitching depth in Triple-A

Mercado is off to a terrific start on the mound for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. In eight games (four starts), he has a 0.44 ERA, 18 strikeouts and 10 walks with a WHIP of 1.02 in 20 2/3 innings. His most recent start was a five-inning effort on May 8 against the Syracuse Mets. He allowed one unearned run on one hit while striking out five and walking one.

The fact that Mercado has been stretched out to make a five-inning start hints at the possibility of a bigger workload in the future. He averaged roughly three innings during his first three starts of the season. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer's Alex Coffey, after Mercado's last outing, manager Rob Thomson said that the Phillies are treating Mercado like a starter.

Looking at some things that stand out with Mercado during his transition back to being a starter, he has yet to allow a single home run after being plagued by the long ball last season. In fact, he has only allowed one earned run over his eight appearances combined, and while he walked five hitters in his previous start against the Worcester Red Sox, he has mostly shown good control on the mound this season. Are we seeing a late bloomer finally taking the next step as a professional pitcher?

Could Michael Mercado be an option in the Phillies bullpen?

The Phillies seem to be one of the rare teams in MLB that currently has an overabundance of starting pitching. It's a good problem to have, but the season is long, and injuries are nearly certain on a big league pitching staff.

Could Mercado make a start for the Phillies this season? It's possible, but with Spencer Turnbull likely the first choice if a starter goes down, it would likely take a catastrophic rash of injuries to get the call.

The more likely scenario would be as a member of the bullpen. While the Phillies have one of the strongest bullpens in baseball this season, there are some potential openings that could open up due to poor performances from Seranthony Domínguez and Gregory Soto. If the Phillies decide that they want to take a look at internal options before testing the trade market, Mercado could be a choice to fill the role of a right-handed bullpen arm if he continues to impress for Lehigh Valley.

The Phillies front office did an excellent job of adding intriguing pitching depth to the organization this past offseason. We've seen the effect Spencer Turnbull has had, could we see Michael Mercado find a role for himself on this team as well?