By Don Trello
The Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
A trip to Gaither High to watch Cowboys senior shortstop Oscar Mercado’s performance on the baseball field was well worth the time this season.
Mercado, who is ranked No. 19 on the draft list and the No. 10 high school player on Baseball America’s overall top 50, is the highest-rated Florida high school player listed.
Mercado’s accomplishments in 2012 included being named ESPN’s No. 1 middle infielder in the nation, an Under Armour All-American, MaxPreps Underclass All-American and Perfect Game All-American Classic and Underclass All-American.
Frank Permuy, the only coach in Gaither’s 29-year program history, has seen plenty of talented players during his tenure, but Mercado might be the best of the bunch.
“He has a great glove and a great arm; he has everything defensively” Permuy said about Mercado. “He definitely has a great (hitting) stroke.”
Mercado and his family moved from Colombia to the United States when he was eight years old. He is a four-year starter at Gaither.
“Oscar was a backup guy as a freshman, but he kind of took over the eighth or ninth game of the season,” Permuy said. “Not too many guys get the opportunity to start as a ninth grader. We asked him to play defense, but he hit .300 and he has progressed every year.
“He led the team in everything but home runs last year,” Permuy added. “He’s a strong kid, but doesn’t yet have the body to be a power hitter. The ball will jump when he gets some power.”
The 6-2, 175-pound Mercado is a lanky figure, but his quick hands and fluid motion make him standout at shortstop.
“I turned myself into a shortstop; it was my dad’s idea,” said Mercado, who is 18. “It takes a lot of brains because you have to know what to do when the ball is hit to you.
“I actually don’t work on defense that much, I just watch a lot of baseball. I like watching Derek Jeter. I’ve become a student of the game.”
Mercado knows he isn’t a power hitter and doesn’t swing for the fences, but he is working on gaining strength.
“I try to spray the field and hit the ball the other way; I’m mostly a gap hitter,” he said. “My body hasn’t developed enough yet to change my approach to hitting. I go to a trainer and workout and feel I’m getting stronger.”
Gaither senior first basemen Rudy Dominguez and Efley Espinal were unanimous in their praise of Mercado as a player and friend.
“I’ve known him since fifth grade and our parents are close,” Espinal said. “Oscar is a humble kid who is ready to play and do well.”
Dominguez gave his assessment of Mercado’s prowess on the diamond.
“He has great foot work, a strong arm and is smooth with the ball,” Dominguez said about Mercado, who is team captain. “He’s a quiet leader who helps out when you need it. His optimism, confidence and humility are intangible traits.”
Mercado said he wasn’t a superstar in youth baseball leagues, but saw his potential to excel in high school.
“My freshman year I realized I could become special,” Mercado said. “I was honored to be in the lineup seeing the people I was playing around, but it made me realize I was better than I thought I was.”
Mercado, who has a 5.0 weighted GPA, has committed to Florida State next school year, but his status as an elite shortstop has generated huge interest from Major League Baseball teams.
“Pro scouts started showing interest last summer,” Mercado said. “Starting in early fall about 15 scouts have been to my house. I followed the Yankees, but I’m just about equal with all of them. Whatever is best for me is the road I’m going to take.
“I haven’t really thought about what it would take for me to sign,” he added. “My parents have information about having my college paid for as part of a contract. We are just going to see how it plays out.”
Has the pressure of being under close scrutiny as the June MLB First-Year Player Draft nears influenced Mercado’s game?
“Keeping my head on track is a big part of it all,” Mercado replied. “Most of the time I stay focused on baseball, but I’ve been struggling a little bit defensively. Sometimes I try to do too much. I have to play within myself.
“Work ethic is the most important thing to making it to the Big Leagues,” Mercado added. “Playing baseball is fun and I never get burned out, but you have to work at it, work at it, and work at it. There’s always room for improvement.”
–Staff Writer Jeff Odom contributed to this report.
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