Over the past 20 years, the Oakland A’s haven’t been known for their speed, but the organization has quietly focused on adding more plus runners in recent years. Last season, the A’s added several speedsters in the draft, but none faster than their second-overall pick, Kevin Merrell.
Merrell, who was considered the fastest college player available in the draft, was the 33rd player selected. He had a standout career at South Florida, which culminated in a junior season during which he posted a .384/.464/.569 line. Merrell stole 19 bases and hit seven home runs in 52 games for the Bulls.
After signing with the A’s, Merrell jumped straight to short-season Vermont, where he continued to produce offensively at an impressive rate. Although hampered by a nagging Achilles injury and a sore throwing shoulder, Merrell still won the Lake Monsters’ Tom Racine award, given out by the Vermont fans to the team’s top player. In 31 games, he hit .320/.362/.424 with seven extra-base hits and 10 stolen bases.
Merrell enjoyed his first taste of professional baseball.
“That was a fun year. Fun summer. I wish I could have stayed healthy more,” Merrell said in Stockton last Sunday. “The daily grind of day in and day out is different than it is in college. What I learned the most this summer was to be able to stay even keeled through the ups and downs because you’ll go 0-for-4 and you’ve got to wake up and be ready to go the next day. That was probably the biggest adjustment.”
Merrell spent the offseason at home in Tampa, where he worked with trainers to strengthen the areas of his body he struggled to keep healthy in 2017.
“I feel 100 percent healthy. I had a terrific offseason focusing on the different areas of weakness in my body,” he said. “I feel great and hopefully I can just maintain that throughout the whole season.”
Merrell arrived in Arizona for spring training in late February to participate in the A’s minor league spring mini-camp. Being part of the early wave in minor league spring training allowed Merrell several opportunities to participate in big league spring games. He took full advantage of his time in front of the big league coaching staff. In 15 at-bats spread over 10 games, Merrell had six hits, including a triple and a home run.
“That’s the dream. That’s what we are all working towards is to get to that level,” Merrell said. “To play at that level for a brief time and see what they do – they’re really talented, but there’s not a ton that separates them from us. It’s just being consistent day-in and day-out. It was awesome. Such a great opportunity to be around (A’s manager Bob) Melvin and the other guys. Definitely learned a lot and that’s the goal, to get there.”
Merrell’s path to the big leagues took a little shortcut when the A’s had him skip the Low-A Midwest League in favor of starting his first professional season in the High-A California League. Merrell is one of six players from the 2017 Vermont Lake Monsters’ squad to jump directly from short-season to the Cal League. Merrell says making that leap with players he had success with last year has made the transition easier.
“There’s a comfort level with guys that you’re used to and this is such a great group of guys here. We all enjoy being around each other,” he said.
Merrell went hitless on Opening Day but has hit safely in all eight games he has played since then. In 44 at-bats, he is batting .289 with a 736 OPS through Saturday.
Although Merrell says his power is “definitely developing,” his main focus as the Ports’ regular leadoff hitter is to set the table for the middle of the order.
“I’m just trying to get on base and let the big boppers drive me in,” he said.
Once on base, Merrell has the green light to run, although Ports’ manager Rick Magnante says a significant focus for his team this year will be learning to let the game situation dictate when a stolen base attempt is a smart play.
“We do have the green light,” Magnante said. “We were very aggressive on the field and in our philosophy in terms of going first to third and stealing bases (this spring) and now all I’m really doing with them is saying: maintain that same mindset but be sure that you first check with me to see if there’s a sign and two, check the scoreboard because that is the best indicator as to what you can and can’t do in terms of risk. They’ll be learning to do that.”
Merrell spent time this spring working with Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson on his base-running.
“It’s been fun with Rickey Henderson being around because he’s the most confident dude ever obviously, as the stolen base king,” he said. “But just picking his brain a little bit and he says it’s about confidence. Even if you get thrown out, being ready to go the next time. That’s one of the biggest things I’m working on. I have the speed to steal bases. It’s just being confident and knowing that I can do it.”
So far this young season, Merrell is two-for-three in stolen base attempts.
Although Merrell has experience playing both shortstop and second base dating back to his collegiate days, Magnante anticipates Merrell getting most of his playing time at shortstop this season. Magnante likens Merrell’s skillset to a former Ports middle infielder who is currently with Double-A Midland.
“Right now he’ll be playing mostly at short. Where his future takes him, I think he can play on both sides of the bag,” Magnante said last Sunday. “We need to work with him to improve his defensive skills. I kind of liken him to Eli White. They are similar. They have playable arms from the left side. They both run well, Merrell probably better. They are both good athletes. They both have an opportunity to have at-bats as they move forward. They are similar guys, so I think it will be a similar approach with both of them. I think Kevin will play the majority of his innings at shortstop this season.”
Through nine games this season, Merrell has played exclusively at shortstop. He says there is a significant difference between playing short in college and playing at the professional level.
“It’s night and day. The speed of runners and just coming to get the ball, it’s a lot different than college,” Merrell said. “The ball comes off the bat differently with wood and the angle, so there’s just a ton of different stuff that you have to focus on and be diligent with and be prepared for in every game.”
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