TAMPA — Maybe the towering expectations and pressure to play like a first-round draft pick was overwhelming for Oscar Mercado.
Maybe there was no pressure at all, and his disappointing senior season was the result of some combination of apathy and senioritis.
Maybe the Gaither shortstop was overrated all along, an invention of old scout hype and summer-and-fall all-star events.
Or maybe, Mercado suggests, he was simply unlucky.
“I know people make their assumptions,” Mercado said. “But it really doesn’t make a difference what people think. It’s what do the (MLB) teams think.”
And that’s one of the few things resembling a consensus opinion when Mercado’s underwhelming spring is the topic of discussion.
Despite it all, Mercado rates as the bay area’s top prospect entering the MLB draft Thursday. He surely looks the part of a top pick, with a lithe physique (6-foot-2, 180 pounds), sprinter’s speed and slick defensive skills.
Most germane to his draft stock, however, is his potential to blossom into a star at one of the game’s most-coveted positions: shortstop.
“He’ll be one of the few shortstops in the draft,” said Kiley McDaniel, a Tampa-based analyst for Scout.com. “He could have a terrible spring and still go in the first round.”
Mercado will put that theory to the test, given that his senior season at Gaither didn’t nearly match his considerable talent or skill set or even his performance in previous years.
He had arguably his worst year in high school at the plate, hitting a career-low .286 with 14 RBIs. It was a surprising drop-off, given his numbers in the three previous varsity seasons: .370 with 29 RBIs in 2012, .338 with 23 RBIs in 2011 and .310 with RBIs in 2010.
Even more confusing were Mercado’s occasional struggles on defense, especially for someone with his reputation for blue-chip fielding skills.
“Mercado has a very long resume with national level scouts and may have to tap on that background after an uninspiring spring that has seen him hit (.286-0-14) and make an uncharacteristic number of errors in the field,” read a report on PerfectGame.com.
To complete the senior-year slide, Mercado wasn’t even selected for first- or second-team all-Western Conference honors, voted upon by high school coaches across the county.
Mercado said the criticism has been overblown, noting several more hits would have pushed his average over .300. He also claims his defense was better than he has been given credit for.
“I was hitting the ball hard a lot and making solid contact,” he said. “I just didn’t catch any breaks. And my defense was a lot better this year than other years.”
Gaither coach Frank Permuy said Mercado “gave 100 percent every day” but wonders if he felt pressure to live up to his reputation, occasionally attempting to make plays that put him in bad situations.
“He didn’t have a good year because of everything else that went along with it … the pressure and everything,” Permuy said. “But he’s one of the best kids that I’ve ever coached. If he’d had the year he had last year, he might have been one of the top five draft picks.”
It’s a testament to his obvious skills, McDaniel said, that Mercado remains a coveted prospect.
But his struggles this spring may have hinted at burnout from years of playing in the spotlight or even possible disinterest, he said.
“He didn’t have really great body language and made a lot of errors,” McDaniel said. “But all the tools are still there. The teams that are interested are very good at coming up with reasons for” his disappointing season.
Soon enough, everyone will find out if Mercado just looks like a pro or plays like one, too.
For Mercado, who picked up the game as a 5-year-old in Cartagena, Colombia, and later made himself into something of a playground legend in the South Brandon Little League, the doubts are good preparation for what may come if he decides to accept a major-league offer or go to Florida State.
“Once you get to pro ball, people are going to be watching you all the time,” he said. “Even if the averages don’t reflect how well you’re playing, you’ll still work your way up through the minor leagues.
“At the end of the day, the people who really know how you’re doing will figure it out.”
First-year player draft
TV: Thursday’s first two rounds, MLB Network, 7 p.m.
Online: MLB.com will cover every round live.