The White Sox's Yermín Mercedes' long and bumpy road to the big leagues
By Jake Mintz
Fox Sports MLB Writer
Yermín Mercedes took the baseball world by storm when he began the season with eight hits in his first eight at-bats.
It was a stupendous spectacle: the anonymous 28-year-old White Sox rookie built like a punch buggy with forearms casually spraying base knocks all over the diamond. In a series that included Mike Trout, Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito, Anthony Rendon and reigning MVP Jose Abreu, Mercedes was the biggest story (at least until Shohei Ohtani had the single greatest inning in baseball history on Sunday night).
Then on Thursday afternoon, Mercedes blasted a ball a whopping 485 feet, the longest homer of the 2021 season thus far.
But the White Sox’s DH/backup catcher/he-doesn’t-really-have-a-position-he-just-hits-dammit didn’t just appear out of nowhere. His emergence is a decade-long tale of perseverance, irrational self-belief and raw talent. Although he has certainly rubbed a few passersby the wrong way on his journey to the bigs, Mercedes’ pomp, style and unwavering belief in his own abilities have turned him into one of the young season’s most delightful surprises.
"He actually thinks he’s Johnny Bench," Mercedes’ Dominican Winter League General Manager, CJ Lugo, told FOX Sports. "But that’s also part of what makes him such a good hitter."
Originally signed as an 18-year-old by the Nationals back in 2011, Mercedes wasn’t even a prospect. His signing story is a wild one.
A group of Nats scouts in the Dominican went to La Romana on the eastern end of the island to scout a pitcher definitely not named Yermin Mercedes. That pitcher needed a catcher at the workout, so someone brought in a local kid to squat. As a thank you, they let the kid take an at-bat. He smoked one to the wall. They gave him another at-bat. He crushed another one. By the end of the week, Mercedes was part of the Washington organization.
But despite hitting above .300 as a catcher over three seasons in the Dominican Summer League, he was released in the winter of 2013. He’d developed a bit of a reputation for showing up late, not always giving 100 percent and pumping himself up to anyone within earshot. Essentially, he was big-leaguing it.
That type of confidence is entertaining and endearing when you’re in a fun-loving big-league clubhouse like the White Sox have. It’s decidedly less so when you haven’t even reached Low-A. As a result, the Nats decided the slow, old-for-the-level catcher with the big mouth wasn’t worth the trouble.
For most people, that would have been a career. But Yermin Mercedes isn’t most people. The same irrational self-confidence that irked some at the Nats complex motivated Mercedes to give it one last go in the independent Pecos League.
The Pecos League is, respectfully, the bottom of the American professional baseball hierarchy. It is the sports equivalent of a tumbleweed rolling across an empty interstate. Spread out across the American southwest, its teams play at high school fields and half-century-old stadiums built for mining companies in the 1940s. A great night at most spots would be 100 butts in the seats.
Only a handful of Pecos leaguers have ever made it to the majors in the circuit’s decade-long history. As far as pro baseball goes, it could not be further from the bigs.
Yet it’s where Yermin Mercedes got back on track.
He started out with the Douglas (Arizona) Diablos but ended up moving to the White Sands Pupfish in New Mexico after the Diablos’ coach, fed up with his antics, walked over to the White Sands dugout and asked if they wanted that pudgy catcher.
Mike DeLong, a pitcher for the Pupfish, urged the manager to take the kid on, so they did. DeLong became Mercedes’ roommate and, five years his senior, did his best to help the young player.
"He was misunderstood," DeLong explained. "His English wasn’t great, so a lot got lost in translation. But if you spoke Spanish, you knew he was just being a goofball. One of the funniest guys I’ve played with."
Most Pecos League teams play at elevation, in the desert, in the dry heat of summer, so offensive numbers can get pretty gaudy. Even in those circumstances, Mercedes’ ludicrous 2014 stint with the Pupfish stands out: He hit .417 with 15 homers and 13 doubles in 37 games. He was downright dominant.
"You knew he was different right away," said DeLong, who has kept in touch with Mercedes and plans to visit him at a White Sox game this season. "The way his hands and feet worked — just different. No one could get him out."
That bonkers offensive showing put Mercedes back on the affiliated radar, and after a short stint with the now-defunct San Angelo Colts of the also now-defunct United Baseball League, he inked a minor league deal with the Orioles.
His tater-laden 2014 also caught the attention of Tigres del Licey, the Yankees of the Dominican Winter League. The club selected Mercedes in the 2014 Dominican Winter League entry draft — a rare occurrence for a player with no affiliated minor league experience in the U.S.
But to Lugo, then a Licey front office official before becoming GM, it was clear that all Mercedes needed was a shot.
"We saw a young Dominican catcher who had consistently hit above .300," Lugo said, "and we asked, ‘Why isn’t anyone else on this guy?'"
Since then, Mercedes has fulfilled that promise, blossoming into one of Licey’s more potent sluggers over the past half-decade and hitting around or above that .300 mark every season.
Along with his impressive winter ball showings, Mercedes began his ascent up the minor leagues with the Orioles: Delmarva one year, Frederick the next, Bowie the year after that. Even though he continued to hit around .300, the Orioles left him unprotected in the 2018 Rule 5 Draft.
As a bad defensive catcher with average power numbers, Mercedes wasn’t exactly an organizational cornerstone. As such, the White Sox scooped him up and left him in the minors until a 23-homer power surge in Double-A and Triple-A in 2019 put him on the big-league radar.
He spent most of the pandemic season at the alternate site, with a very brief cup of coffee in August 2020. Then he made the big-league roster out of spring training this year after mashing his way through the Cactus League — and boom! That’s how Yermin Mercedes ended up going 8-for-8 to start the 2021 season.
It should be noted that Mercedes’ climb hasn’t been without incident. His time with the Nationals ended earlier than it should have due to his lackadaisical attitude. More recently, Licey suspended him in each of the past two seasons: in 2019 for bailing on the team unannounced before first pitch and in 2020 for violating COVID-19 protocols.
The line between confidence and overconfidence is a fine one. Over the years, Mercedes has built a character around himself that allowed him to truly believe, against all odds, that he could be a big leaguer. While the attitude that he was too good for some of the lower levels of pro baseball was surely exhausting to be around at times, it has largely been validated by Mercedes' ascension to the majors.
It’s extra fitting that he's doing this with the 2021 White Sox, a team stacked with exhilarating players up and down the lineup.
Regardless of whether Mercedes can keep this up, his presence in the major leagues is in and of itself a success. Whether he hits .600 for the rest of his career or fizzles out before Labor Day, Mercedes made it. Plain and simple.
He has already proven the disbelievers wrong. Sure, he’d love a long and lucrative MLB career, but if you look at his face after every one of his first eight hits, there’s an unmistakable sense of accomplishment and validation.
Because it turns out that Yermín Mercedes was absolutely right about Yermín Mercedes being great at baseball.
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Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.