Who are Connor Capel and Jhon Torres?
Those are the two lower-level minor leaguers the Indians traded to St. Louis at the July 31 trade deadline last year. The trade, understandably, barely produced a blip on the radar of Indians fans.
Tuesday night that trade won a ballgame for the Indians, who beat Cincinnati 2-1 on a 10th-inning walk-off RBI single by Oscar Mercado, the player the Indians got from the Cardinals in that seemingly forgettable minor league trade.
Since May 14, when the Indians recalled him from Triple-A Columbus, where he was hitting .294, Mercado has played his way from being just a guy to potentially being A GUY.
“He’s a great kid,” manager Terry Francona said. “A little raw, but that’s not surprising — it’s his first time in the major leagues. But he’s really conscientious. He listens, he wants to get better, and he has the tools to do it.”
Mercado is not exactly an out-of-nowhere discovery. The Cardinals thought enough about him as a high school player in Tampa, Fla., to select him in the second round of the 2013 draft, giving him a $1.5 million signing bonus.
He spent six years in St. Louis’ minor league system, but he was still just 24 when the Indians acquired him last summer, in exchange for Capel and Torres. It was a necessary trade for the Indians, the kind they should be considering, on an even bigger scale — with Trevor Bauer and Brad Hand as the trade bait — at the July 31 trade deadline this year.
Torres, at age 19, is hitting .167 at the Class-A level in the Cardinals’ system this year. But last year in 162 at-bats in rookie ball, he hit .321 with eight home runs and 30 RBIs. Baseball America ranks him as the No. 19 prospect in the St. Louis system. The 22-year-old Capel is hitting .215 with eight home runs and 29 RBIs at Double-A Springfield. Baseball America ranks him as the No. 22 prospect in the St. Louis system.
The Indians made the trade not because they didn’t value Torres or Capel, but because they were both years away from the majors. Mercado was major league-ready, and he filled a desperate need for the Indians: an outfielder who can hit.
Finding diamonds in another team’s rough is familiar and well-tilled turf for the Indians, who have a long and impressive history of doing exactly that.
Just in this century, the list of impact players the Indians plucked out of other teams’ minor league systems is long and impressive: Corey Kluber, Grady Sizemore, Michael Brantley, Cliff Lee, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Carlos Santana, Jake Westbrook, Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Rafael Betancourt, Brandon Phillips, Ben Broussard, Coco Crisp, Yan Gomes, Justin Masterson, Chris Perez and Zach McAllister.
Going back into the last century, one of the Indians’ greatest heists ever came in 1991, when they stole Kenny Lofton, who should be in the Hall of Fame, out of the Houston minor league system in exchange for Willie Blair and Eddie Taubensee.
Whether the trade for Mercado moves the needle in the outfield for the Indians remains to be seen, but he’s off to a promising start, which is more than can be said for the Indians’ outfield play overall. On the other hand, it takes more than getting off to a good start.
Tyler Naquin got off to a good start in his career. In 365 at-bats as a rookie in 2016, he hit .296 with 14 home runs — including an electrifying walk-off inside-the-park homer — and an .886 OPS. However, over the next three years, in 315 at-bats, he’s hit .260 with five home runs and a .653 OPS.
At this very early point in his big league career, Mercado is at least a person of interest, in an area of serious team need. In 83 major league at-bats he’s hitting .277 with a .767 OPS. He’s also hitting .333 against right-handed pitching, which is important because most starting pitchers in the majors are right-handers.
Francona admitted in spring training that the Indians toyed with the idea of having Mercado start the season on the big league roster. But with the cold weather, and the likelihood that Mercado wouldn’t play every day, it was felt that was unfair for a rookie in the big leagues for the first time.
Mercado’s time eventually came, and he’s making the most of it, playing left field and batting second on most days. Most days Mercado does something that stands out — such as that walk-off 10th-inning single Tuesday night.
“There will be times when we have to be patient with him, and that’s OK. That’s all part of it,” Francona said.
Especially if Mercado can become a worthy successor to Brantley in left field.
Because his competition for that spot is not exactly, shall we say, robust.