The night and the first two rounds of the draft were simultaneously coming to an end, and Oscar Mercado was finally starting to get nervous.
Mercado, a slick-fielding shortstop from Gaither, had been projected as a late first-round or early second-round MLB draft pick and those slots had long since been filled. His family’s house, filled with about 30 family members and friends, could feel the tension building.
“I was starting to stress a little bit at the end,” Mercado admitted.
Then came a phone call, around 10:40 p.m. Thursday. The St. Louis Cardinals were on the other end and they wanted to make a deal.
So started the process that ended with Mercado going to the Cardinals with the 57th pick overall, in the latter half of the second round.
Mercado was one of three players from Hillsborough County taken on Day 1 of Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft, including Durant pitcher Tyler Danish (No. 55 to the Chicago White Sox) and Wharton shortstop Tucker Neuhaus (No. 72 in the sandwich round to the Milwaukee Brewers).
But Mercado’s slide was probably the most notable development of the draft among local prospects.
He was projected as a potential first-rounder coming into the spring. Mercado certainly looked the part of a top pick, with his sleek build (6-foot-2, 180 pounds), sprinter’s speed and lauded defensive skills.
Then he had arguably his worst year in high school at the plate, hitting a career-low .286 with 14 RBIs. Mercado also struggled defensively.
More surprising, to the Cardinals, was that Mercado was still available that late in the draft.
“Frankly we didn’t think Oscar was going to get to our pick at 57,” Cardinals scouting director Dan Kantrovitz told MLB.com. “When you see a shortstop of that caliber still on the board at 57, we weren’t going to walk away.”
Kantrovitz also said his staff wasn’t dissuaded by Mercado’s sagging offensive production.
“In the same way that we don’t read into the state of a high school player on the really positive end, we don’t read that much into a high school player’s stats on the negative end,” Kantrovitz said. “We think Oscar is going to surprise some people with the bat.”
Mercado, of course, feels much the same. “I’ve known all along what type of player I am,” he said.
Now Mercado will turn his attention to making a decision between joining the Cardinals or accepting a scholarship offer to Florida State.
The assigned slot value for the 57th pick is about $971,400, and the Cardinals have indicated they believe they can sign Mercado.
However, Mercado said his agent is still in negotiations with the Cardinals.
“We’re still in the middle of the process,” Mercado said.
Meanwhile, Mercado said he plans to enjoy the end of the process and spend time with several of his family members, who traveled from his native Colombia.
There will be plenty of time for baseball and long-term decisions.
“It feels like a huge load has been lifted off my shoulders,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier with how it ended.”
King's Morales, Cambridge's Eicholtz will head to college
Two local pitching standouts have decided to pursue college careers for at least the next three years instead of toiling in the minor leagues.
King’s Brett Morales and Cambridge Christian’s Nick Eicholtz announced Friday — the second day of the MLB draft — they had turned down offers from major-league clubs.
“Can’t wait to be a Florida Gator,” Morales said via his Twitter account. “Blessed to have that opportunity and can’t wait to help them win a National Championship!”
Eicholtz also turned to Twitter to make his announcement: “Just did one of the hardest things in my life that I’ll ever have to do. Turned down an opportunity to play professional baseball because I feel like god has a plan for me up at alabama! So all I gotta say is rolltide!!!”
After Durant’s Tyler Danish, Gaither’s Oscar Mercado and Wharton’s Tucker Neuhaus were taken Thursday on the draft’s first day, Morales and Eicholtz were projected to be the next local players off the board.
Instead, Rounds 3 through 10 of the draft rolled by Friday without another prep player from Hillsborough being chosen.
Morales was the catalyst for one of King’s best teams in recent memory, pitching the Lions into their third state tournament appearance in 38 years. He went 11-2 with a 0.58 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 85 innings pitched.
He’ll take his considerable talents to Florida, which has been one of his childhood dreams.
“I just decided (going pro) wasn’t the best decision at this time,” Morales said. “But I was fortunate to have a great situation. It’s going to be fun to compete for a national championship.”
The news of Morales’ decision was immediately greeted with optimism in Gainesville: “Big get for Florida,” tweeted Cody Jones, a Gators beat writer with Scout.com. “Immediate help on the mound.”
Eicholtz will head to Tuscaloosa after a dominant season at Cambridge, where he led the Lancers to the Class 2A semifinals. He had a 0.73 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 48 innings.
Crimson Tide coaches came to Tampa to watch the draft with him this week, perhaps hoping they could convince him to cast his lot with them for the next three years.
They’ll be heading back to Alabama pleased with their efforts.
“Can’t help but think that @MitchGaspard & Alabama Baseball coaching staff has a collective smile on their faces after today’s transactions,” tweeted Rick Pendley, vice president of Alabama’s official booster organization.