Coming into the year, Oscar Mercado almost expected to feel like a stranger in his own organization.
That notion, after all, had some basis in truth. The outfielder had been involved in a rare all-Minor League deal right before last year's July 31 Trade Deadline, moving from the Cardinals to the Indians for lower-level prospects Conner Capel and Jhon Torres as Cleveland tried to bolster its outfield ranks. Mercado played 32 games with Triple-A Columbus after the trade but, despite being on the 40-man roster, didn't get the call to the Majors after an inconsistent first trip to the International League.
So when manager Terry Francona called him in for a one-on-one meeting at the start of Spring Training -- his first in Arizona -- it really was more of an introduction than a preseason check-in.
"He understood being new, sometimes you feel like you're walking around on eggshells," Mercado said. "He just let me know I could be myself. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to speak out, even though you don't want to look dumb or anything. If I had a question about where I had to be or about my playing time, don't be afraid to approach them and ask them. He wanted me to be comfortable."
Back with Columbus, Mercado looks plenty settled. And it might not be long before he gets to see Francona again -- in a much different context.
The Indians' No. 19 prospect is riding an 11-game hitting streak -- the longest active run in the IL -- and batting .362/.450/.609 with two homers, 12 total extra-base hits and seven stolen bases in his first 17 games back with the Clippers. Each of the right-handed slugger's long balls have come as leadoff shots, as Mercado batted first in the Columbus lineup in all of his 17 starts -- a sign that the Tribe hoped he would be a big part of the club's attack straight from Opening Day.
Video: Mercado leads off with blast for Clippers
"I think there's an understanding that I needed to come in and make a good impression," he said. "I understood the role I was in, especially with this situation with the team and everything. I wanted to go out and show what I could do, not only the coaches but the players around me. Make them understand I can help the team win, and I want them to feel that confidence that I have in myself. Be able to trust me whenever the time comes."
Mercado was rarely this hot during his first exposure to Triple-A, either in Memphis or Columbus last season. He hit .278/.349/.390 with eight homers and 37 stolen bases in 132 games between both spots -- OK numbers, but nothing that demanded a Major League callup. If it was going to come, it'd be because of his handedness -- Cleveland was low on righty hitters in the outfield -- or his speed, but not purely on his bat.
The thing that stands out most in the early going is his power increase, which has partly been explained by an adjustment in approach. Mercado pulled the ball 47.1% of the time in Memphis and 42% of the time with Columbus in 2018 but has seen the pull rate jump to 55.3% so far this season with the Clippers. That's partially because he's trying to do a better job of attacking inside pitches.
"Being able to drive the ball when it's pitched there is something I wanted to do more consistently," he said. "But I also think I'm taking my hits to right field whenever they're giving it to me. I feel like I have quite a few hits the other way this year already. But one of my biggest things this year was to hit the ball more efficiently -- not necessarily pulling the ball, but causing fewer ground balls, getting balls in the gap, driving the ball where it is, that sort of thing."
Compare this start to the rough introduction Mercado had to the IL in his first go-round. He opened 5-for-42 (.119) with one extra-base hit over his first 15 games following the trade -- a stretch he fully admits had him pressing to provide results for an organization that had just swapped two players for him alone.
"You get over and you just want to show off in front of new guys, and that can cause you to get ahead of yourself," he said. "That's something that kind of affected me a little bit. It took a couple weeks to slow down the game and get back to what I was doing before. After a few weeks, I think everything came out perfect, and toward the end of August, I got the same thing I was doing in Memphis and let my game play instead of trying to make things happen.
"You understand that they came and got you for a reason, so you want to impress your new teammates and coaching staff. You don't want to let anybody down. You put a lot of pressure on yourself when, in reality, you just need to get back to what you were doing in the first place. It's the same game. Different teammates, different coaches, different organization. But the game doesn't change."
The Indians may have never decided to pick up Mercado in the first place had it not been for another adjustment he'd made several years earlier.
The Cardinals took the Tampa native in the second round of the 2013 Draft as a shortstop, only to see him flounder both offensively and defensively in the lower levels. Mercado didn't post an OPS above .638 in any of his first four seasons, and he continually faltered in the field, committing as many as 41 errors at short in 2015 with Class A Peoria, even though he received strong scouting grades. St. Louis started giving him looks in center field in 2016, in the hopes of taking advantage of his plus speed. A year later, the organization moved him to the grass full-time as he made the jump to Double-A Springfield.
Meanwhile, Mercado enjoyed his best offensive season yet, hitting .287/.341/.428 with a career-high 13 homers over 120 games in the Texas League and earning midseason All-Star honors. This was no coincidence.
"I think it was just having a free mind," he said. "It's a different game, kind of. I was probably a lot better outfielder than I was an infielder, so it took a lot of stress away from me. It let me be me, go out there, use my athleticism and do my thing. ... Obviously, there's a lot more to [the outfield] that I'm learning every day still with Columbus. But it's amazing to be free and let your instincts play more. At shortstop, I had a lot of throwing errors and other things that I wasn't able to figure out. This was something that wouldn't be as mentally taxing but still beneficial to my career overall."
The Cardinals added Mercado to the 40-man roster in November 2017 to protect his improving bat and newfound outfield skills from that year's Rule 5 Draft. After the offensive improvements carried over to Memphis, the Indians came calling in part because of the system's shallow outfield pool, especially when it came to right-handed bats. That situation has carried over into 2019. Jake Bauers, Leonys Martin and Tyler Naquin -- the three players with the most outfield starts for Cleveland this season -- all bat left-handed, as does Carlos Gonzalez, who joined the big club on April 14 after signing a Minor League deal in the offseason. Should any of those four or the switch-hitting Greg Allen suffer an injury, Mercado and Jordan Luplow (a fellow righty hitter) are the only active outfielders on the 40-mantt roster not currently with the big club.
It might not even come to down to handedness or health. Collectively, Indians outfielders rank 23rd in the Majors with a -0.3 WAR, and with the club entering the season favored to win its fourth straight AL Central division title, it can't afford to have a below-replacement-level unit such as that, especially with the Twins opening relatively strong out of the gate with a 13-9 record. The introduction of Mercado's improved bat and continued speed and defensive value could be of use sooner rather than later for the Tribe.
For his part, Mercado has spent the early weeks of the 2019 season studying Columbus teammates Gonzalez, Luplow, Trayce Thompson and Cameron Maybin (who was dealt to the Yankees on Thursday) to understand what made them Major League players. One thing was clear: he just needs to keep being the new and improved Oscar Mercado. If he does that, Francona won't need any to call any one-on-one session next time they meet.
"They really understand their strengths, and that's what they focus on," Mercado said of the veterans. "They know what got them there. They really understand it, and there's something to take from that."