Thursday, July 2, 2015

Random Ex-Brave: Kent Mercker

The first round of the 1986 draft yielded some solid results. First, the Pirates took Jeff King, who hit 154 homeruns over a 11-year career. The Indians gobbled up University of Texas lefty Greg Swindell next. The Giants selected Matt Williams third and watched as he nearly broke the homerun record in 1994 before the strike killed his season. Selected fourth and sixth would be a pair of future Marlins in Kevin Brown and Gary Sheffield. Between those two would be a lefty out of Dublin High School in Ohio. The first high school player selected. Kent Mercker by the Atlanta Braves. It was a pretty poor draft for the Braves and unfortunately, Mercker never became the strong lefty you hope out of a fifth overall pick. Still, considering the only other player selected by the Braves that year that actually played for them was fourth rounder Mike Bell, Mercker was a solid selection, I guess.

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Mercker, was a pretty good prospect for a pretty bad team. After he saw his 1987 season wiped out due to injury, Mercker came on the scene in 1988, posting a 2.91 ERA in 176 innings between two levels. He continued his solid work the following year with a 3.20 ERA at Richmond, which was good enough for him to warrant Top 50 prospect status by Baseball America heading into 1990. He made his major league debut in 1989 and appeared in 36 games out of the pen in 1990. He walked too many, gave up too many homeruns, but still nailed down seven saves and a 3.17 ERA. Those seven saves for the 1990 Braves was personal best.

The lefty would become a valuable member of the Worst-to-First Braves of 1991. In 50 games, he posted a 2.58 ERA and was especially good against lefties, who hit just .194 against Mercker with two extra base hits. He missed a lot of time in August with a rib injury, but would make it back after a stint on the DL for the remainder of the year. This would become quite important when, on September 11, 1991, Mercker was asked to start his second of what would be four starts out of need. At home against the Padres, Mercker took the ball and dominated the Padres over six innings. The Padres reached base just twice via a pair of walks against Mercker. He would be lifted after six shutout innings and Terry Pendleton's 20th homer of the season in the fifth provided the edge as Mark Wohlers went two innings and Alejandro Pena tossed a hitless ninth to finish off the three-pitcher no-hitter. Mercker took a loss in the NLCS that year, but retired all three batters he faced in the World Series.

Over the next two years, Mercker was a valuable bullpen member. Of the 96 games he appeared in, he started just six. In 1994, the Braves traded Pete Smith (Random Ex-Brave Profile) and Mercker was named the fifth starter. His first start came in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. After 131 pitches, four walks, and ten strikeouts, Mercker did something the stars of the rotation never did. He threw a no-hitter. I remember watching as an 11 year-old kid on TBS as he finished the game. It didn't strike me at the time how special it was.

Mercker finished with a 3.45 ERA over the strike-shortened year. The following season, he was expected to build on his success, but that didn't happen. His ERA climbed over 4.00. Advanced metrics shine light on the fact that he wasn't that much worse than he was the previous year - he was just not nearly as lucky. Mercker would shift to the pen for the postseason, but was rarely used. After he got a ring, the Braves shipped him off to Baltimore for a pair of players, including Joe Borowski. It would be the first of four trades in his career.

The polite term to use when describing Mercker in Baltimore was awful. His 7.76 ERA was well "earned." After just 14 games, the O's traded him to the Indians for the aging Eddie Murray. I guess it made sense at the time. Mercker would become a free agent after the year and stayed in his home-state of Ohio by going to the Reds. He would again be a starter and he was a fine fifth starter, but really, teams should have smelled the coffee and brought him back to the bullpen, where he was at his best. They didn't and the Cardinals gave him $3.8M to start for them from 1998 through most of 1999. His 5.09 ERA in 55 games, including 47 starts, was probably not what they sought. They sent him packing to the Red Sox and he finished the year in Boston before signing with the Angels for 2000.

His 2000 season is less known for his production on the mound - he struggled to the tune of a 6.52 ERA - but more known for the life-threatening cerebral hemorrhage he suffered. On May 11 while pitching, Mercker doubled over in front of the mound. The doctors were able to rule out an aneurysm and the bleeding stopped. It took him three months to get back to the Angels, but considering the concern was that he might not be able to survive, three months of missed baseball action is nothing.

He would go on to sign with the Red Sox for 2001, but he didn't make the roster and was cut during spring training. The following year, he joined the Rockies. He had started his last game in the majors and was entering his mid-30's. His year in Colorado wasn't good by any means. His ERA was 6.14 and his flyball nature was a bad fit in the thin air of Denver. It was also during this time, according to the Mitchell Report, that he bought $1600 in HGH from Kirk Radmonski.

Mercker's career was at a crossroads. His return in 2000 from a life-threatening event earned him the Tony Conigliaro Award, but he hadn't posted a decent season in the majors since 1997. He headed back to his home state Reds and posted a 2.35 ERA. Advanced metrics suggest he was lucky (4.54 FIP), but it was still an impressive return for Mercker from the struggles of the last several years. That August, the Braves were looking to shore up their left-hand side of the bullpen, which was limited to Ray King and Jung Bong. They sent Matt Belisle, their 2nd round pick in 1998, to the Reds in a waiver-deal. Belisle would go on to become a great reliever for the Rockies, but the Braves were seeking to win big in Greg Maddux's final year with the Braves. They fell to the Cubs in the NLDS with Mercker throwing an inning in his final postseason appearance.

After the season, Mercker signed with the Cubs and looked pretty good in a then-personal best 71 games, but his most noteworthy moment in Chicago didn't come on the mound. The Cubs were a dysfunctional mess that year and finished third despite being expected to build upon their NLCS appearance the previous year. That August, Mercker took offense to Cubs commentators Chip Carey and Steve Stone. Upset that Carey was praising Roy Oswalt, who Mercker had drilled in the game in retaliation to a Cub that Oswalt had hit, Mercker started the ball rolling that led to a fight of words and different stories between the Cubs announcers and Mercker. Stone went to the papers that Mercker had overstepped his bounds, though Mercker contended that he had merely told the Cubs public relations person to ask Carey how "six runs in eight innings can be brilliant." More ridiculous back-and-forth followed. There were reports from Stone that Mercker "screamed" and "threatened" him. Mercker denies that and also denies he cost Stone his job with the Cubs. Either way, by the beginning of 2005, all three had moved on to different employers with Carey sadly joining the Braves announce crew. Think I would have taken Mercker back.

Mercker spent the next couple of years in Cincinnati. His numbers were not that noticeable and he suffered an injury in August of 2006 that culminated with Tommy John Surgery. It could have ended his career, but shortly before the 2008 spring training started, Mercker signed with the Reds, and after making their roster, appeared in 15 games with the Reds to close his career. He missed time with back pain and never was able to make it back.

Retirement for Mercker has included a gig announcing games for the Reds, helping to coach his kids' sports teams, and according to his twitter page, he has transitioned into a life as a sports agent with Excel Sports Management.

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