Phillies prospect Lehigh Valley Ironpigs’ Michael Mercado is ready for any role

Philadelphia Phillies

At the end of spring training, Phillies prospect Michael Mercado pitched in a minor league game on the back fields. He immediately looked off. His body language was different. Brian Kaplan, the Phillies’ director of pitching development, sensed some trepidation.

As a reliever, Mercado was confident. He attacked the zone, daring hitters to touch his rising fastball, and tempting them to chase his spiking curveball. But as a starter, he didn’t throw with the same conviction. Kaplan saw a pitcher who was focused on conserving his energy rather than making the most of it.

After the game, he pulled Mercado aside.

“Don’t lose that reliever’s mindset,” he said. “Just do everything you’ve done up to this point as a reliever.”

Mercado took Kaplan’s advice to heart. The last time he’d pitched out of the rotation was in 2022 with the Rays organization. He was drafted as a starter in 2017 but struggled, for a few reasons. He didn’t have the same weapons he has now. He hadn’t faced higher-caliber hitters, and didn’t know how his stuff would play.

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But above all, he wasn’t confident.

“Instead of thinking like, ‘I don’t care if he knows it’s coming, I can still beat him with it,’ it was, ‘Oh, no, he knows what’s coming. I don’t know if I can get it by him,’ ” Mercado said.

Waiting for Phillies’ call

A lot can change in a year. Mercado was traded to the Phillies in November of 2023, and has now found himself back in the Lehigh Valley IronPigs’ starting rotation. He’s developed a starters’ arsenal — a fastball, spike curveball, split-changeup and cutter — and has the confidence that he once lacked.

It’s showing in his results. The 6-foot-4 righty has pitched to a 0.63 ERA over 10 games (six starts). He has yet to allow a home run, and hitters are batting .156 against him. Mercado is a realist and knows it’s unlikely that he’ll keep those numbers all season. But both he and the Phillies are encouraged by his progress.

Mercado’s goal is to make his big-league debut at some point this season, and it very well could happen. What remains to be seen is what his role would look like. Mercado started his season with triple A Lehigh Valley as a multi-inning reliever. On May 8, the Phillies began to stretch him out, but not to six or seven innings, like some of his teammates in the rotation.

Mercado typically throws five innings per outing. If he does get his call-up with the Phillies this year, his role will be based on what they need. He could pitch in long relief, or he could pitch in a similar role to what Matt Strahm did when Ranger Suárez went on the injured list early last year.

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Strahm was pitching out of the rotation, but only for four- or five-inning starts. He, too, brought a relievers’ mentality to that role, and excelled at it. Having two jack-of-all-trades pitchers, one from the right side, one from the left, couldn’t hurt.

“I think right now, starting is such a premium that you want to have as many options as you can,” said IronPigs manager Anthony Contreras. “So, we’re gonna keep him built up as long as people up above want him to stay a starter. But I think in doing so, it’s like — if there is a pressing need for long relief or bulk in the bullpen up there, he’s built up to do whatever you need..

“Developing a starter is a little tougher, but at the same time, if you need him to go up there, blow it out for an inning or two, he’s built up to do that and has obviously the stuff and the poise to do that as well.”

Contreras would like to see more consistency from Mercado. There are days, like May 15 against Norfolk, when he was nearly unhittable, allowing just one hit through five innings with seven strikeouts. And then there are days like May 21 against Rochester, when he exits his start early, allows four walks, and records just one strikeout.

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“Everything was clicking in Norfolk,” Contreras said. “His velocity never faltered. It was still 95-96 mph going deep into the game. On May 21, he was kind of sitting around 92 to 94 mph. He would flash a couple 95′s, but it was definitely a noticeable difference from Norfolk, when the fastball was exploding, and he was able to drop his curveball whenever he wanted to.

“You’re always trying to walk that line of development and performance. So, when he has an outing like that, you’re going like, ‘OK, what did you learn from it?’ The ups and downs are all good, but as he goes longer into the season, and has more of a shot for the big league team, we’re going to want to see him stretch two or three outings in a row where he’s dominant. So, I can have the confidence calling [Rob] Thomson saying like, ‘Yeah, if you need a starter, or a long relief arm out of the bullpen, Mercado is your guy right now.’ ”

One thing Contreras has noticed is that Mercado maintains his composure. Mercado has had some bad luck this year. His walk rate is higher than he’d like, which could be due in part to the fact that he often pitches on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when the IronPigs use the stringent ABS (automated ball-strike) system.

In the May 21 game against Rochester, Mercado walked two batters, and induced what should’ve been a double play in the third inning with one out. Infielder Wes Wilson committed an error, and Mercado had to throw 17 more pitches to finish the frame.

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“You still see him stay under control,” Contreras said. “You try to watch those guys and how they act when they don’t have their stuff. Are they getting riled up? Is the game speeding up on them? I don’t ever get that sense with Mike.

“If it’s not there, he doesn’t show it. It’s just, this is what I got to pitch through.”

Next steps

There is still development to be had here. Right now, Mercado is focusing on pitch sequencing. He’s practicing it in his bullpens — how to pitch to different types of hitters, and in different types of situations. It has helped him, and will be key for him if he’s going to go through a lineup multiple times.

He’s also adding weight so he can better maintain his strength throughout the season. Mercado pitched 62 innings last year with the Rays- double-A and triple-A affiliates. The Phillies are mindful of that.

But Mercado says his confidence might be the most important change of all.

“It’s so weird how that works,” Mercado said. “You can throw the same pitch twice in a row, and if one is thrown with conviction, and one isn’t, there can be two different results. It’s kind of crazy, but I think there’s definitely some truth in that.”

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