Orlando Luis Merced Villanueva
- Bats Both, Throws Right
- Height 5' 11", Weight 170 lb.
- High School University Garden High School
- Debut June 27, 1990
- Final Game September 28, 2003
- Born November 2, 1966 in Hato Rey, P.R.
Orlando Merced played 19 years in professional baseball, with a 106 OPS+ in 13 years in the majors.
Amateur career and signing
Merced's pro baseball career almost did not exist. His high school had no baseball team so he played volleyball and basketball in high school and ran track. He played some baseball in American Legion. His friend Luis Clemente was the subject of interest from the Pittsburgh Pirates and in 1985, three Pirates scouts came to Puerto Rico to sign the son of the most famous Puerto Rican in Pittburgh's baseball history. Merced came to Luis Clemente's household to celebrate with him and his family. Luis's uncle encouraged the scouts to take a look at Orlando. He had not played baseball for six months but the scouts gave him a tryout and he impressed them enough that they signed him.
1985-1990: In the minors
Merced's career began with a GCL Pirates team so awful it lost 20 games in a row. Luis manned shortstop and third base while friend Luis Clemente played second on occasion. Merced hit .228/~.276/.294, not a sign of the things to come. Orlando's career seemed over after a rocky year in 1986 with the Macon Pirates (.197/~.249/.266 in 65 games as an OF/3B) and the Watertown Pirates (.180/~.291/.303 in 27 contests as a 3B/OF). In 1987, the 20-year-old barely played. He went 5 for 12 with a walk and triple in 4 games at second for Watertown and was 0 for 4 with Macon.
During the 1988 season, Merced began to emerge as a prospect. In 37 games with the Augusta Pirates, the switch-hitting utility man hit .265/~.310/.375. Moving up to the Salem Buccaneers, Orlando batted .292/~.353/.450 while playing every infield position as well as the outfield. Merced stole 13 bases in 16 tries and legged out 7 triples. Had he gotten enough plate appearances to qualify, he would have ranked 10th in the Carolina League in average. He did tie Bernie Williams for second in the league in triples, trailing Derrick May. Merced's biggest problem was defense - he fielded only .855 (26 errors in 58 games) at his primary position, third base.
After three years of slow progress, Merced continued his suddenly quick climb in the system. He spent 95 games with the Harrisburg Senators as a 1B/DH and hit .240/~.306/.364, then hit .341/~.375/.450 in 35 games for the Buffalo Bisons, his fourth team in a two-year period.
Orlando opened 1990 with Buffalo as a regular first baseman. He stated that getting to play first regularly gave him more time to think about his hitting. His defense was erratic early as he had 7 errors in his first 25 games, but he only had seven more in the other 56 games there. He batted .262/~.342/.397 for the Bisons and stole 14 bases in 19 tries. He was named to the American Association All-Star team at first base. He had a couple of stints with the Pirates, going 5 for 24 with 9 strikeouts, primarily in a pinch-hitting role.
In 1990-1991, Merced hit .274/~.363/.418 for the Lobos de Arecibo in the and was among the Puerto Rican league leaders with 29 walks.
1991-1996: As a regular in Pittsburgh
With Sid Bream leaving, Pittsburgh had a vacancy at first. They gave Merced the left-handed part of the existing platoon with Gary Redus and Orlando hit .275/.373/.399 in a fine debut in 1991. He had a 120 OPS+ despite lacking the power traditionally associated with the first base position, thanks to his fine OBP skill. He scored a career-best 83 runs. Jim Leyland decided to utilize Merced's good on-base ability at the top of the order and it paid off. He went 2 for 9 with a homer in Pittsburgh's loss in the 1991 NLCS, only seeing limited action as the Atlanta Braves used two southpaw starters, Steve Avery and Tom Glavine. Orlando finished second to Jeff Bagwell in voting for the 1991 National League Rookie of the Year Award.
In a similar role in 1992, the 25-year-old produced at a .247/.332/.385 clip in a poor sophomore season. He went 1 for 10 with two walks and a double in the 1992 NLCS, again against the Braves. His OPS+ was still above league-average (104) but was not good enough for a first baseman. Kevin Young was Pittsburgh's hot prospect so he took over the job the next year and Orlando moved to the outfield.
Merced batted .313/.414/.443 and had a career year in 1993. He was 9th in the National League in average and 4th in OBP. His OPS+ was a very good 130. He set career highs in walks (77), average and OBP as Pittsburgh tried to fill the gaping hole left by the departure of Barry Bonds. Orlando was suddenly one of the team's veteran players along with Jay Bell and Andy Van Slyke as youngsters like Young, Al Martin and Carlos Garcia became regulars.
Merced regressed towards the baseline in 1994, hitting .272/.343/.412 for one of the worst teams in the NL. Orlando split time between right field and first base that year. His OPS+ was only 96, not good for a corner outfielder.
Pittsburgh needed pop - Brian R. Hunter had led the 1994 Pirates with only 11 homers - and Merced stepped up with 15 circuit clouts in 1995. He drove in a career-high 83 runs from the heart of the order (usually third) and scored 75, the most since his rookie year. He hit .300/.365/.468 as he led the Bucs in OPS. His OPS+ was back up to a solid 117.
Merced's production fell off a bit in 1996 but remained okay - he had a 111 OPS+ as he hit .287/.357/.457, drove in 80 and had a career-high 17 home runs. He was Pittsburgh's primary cleanup hitter, one of the star sluggers (behind Jeff King) on a light-hitting outfit.
1997-2000: Four years, seven teams
After spending his first 11 pro seasons with one organization, Orlando's life changed to one of wild fluctuation. It began in November of 1996 when Pittsburgh made one of its better team-rebuilding moves. The Pirates dealt the declining Merced, Garcia and Dan Plesac to the Toronto Blue Jays for a slew of prospects including Jose Silva, Brandon Cromer, Abe Nunez and Craig Wilson (the latter two were players to be named later).
Merced hit third for the Blue Jays in 1997, batting in front of Joe Carter, and hit .266/.352/.413 before being moved up to second in the lineup later in the year. His OPS+ fell to 99; he was 30 years old and his best years were behind him.
Toronto did not re-sign Orlando when he became a free agent after the season and he moved on to the Minnesota Twins in 1998. Merced produced at a .289/.345/.422 clip that year, mostly playing at first base. As the trading deadline neared, Orlando was shipped with Greg Swindell to the Boston Red Sox for John Barnes, Matt Kinney and Joe Thomas. With the Red Sox, Merced was a miserable 0 for 9, mostly as a pinch-hitter. They let him go barely a month after trading for him and he was picked up by the Chicago Cubs. With his third team of the year, Merced was 3 for 10 with a walk, homer and 5 RBI in a fine job in limited time off the bench.
Merced joined the Montréal Expos as a free agent signee in 1999 and hit .268/.353/.464 for a respectable 101 OPS+ as a backup. He hit .286/.366/.514 in 41 games in the difficult pinch-hitting role for the Expos.
In a 1999 poll of major leaguers, Merced surprisingly finished second among least-desired teammates, with 11% of the vote, sandwiched between well-known selfish players Barry Bonds (#1) and Albert Belle (#3).
Orlando signed with the Orix BlueWave for 2000 and homered in his first at-bat for the club. He only hit .225/.259/.350, though, in 23 games with Orix, and was let go in August. Troy Neel and Yasuo Fujii, Orix's main DHes, were far more productive.
2001-2003: Astros and stability
Returning to Houston, Merced was the main pinch-hitter for the Astros in 2001 and 2002. He hit .263/.333/.453 the first year to show he could still hit well and .287/.350/.434 for a 102 OPS+ in 2002. He went 0 for 1 in the 2001 NLDS1 as his post-season efforts resulted in three first-round losses. Backing up the likes of Lance Berkman, Richard Hidalgo and Bagwell meant that Merced got few starts with Houston. He hit .259/.323/.552 in 65 games as a pinch-hitter in 2001 and .229/.373/.271 in 59 pinch-hit appearances the next year.
Merced played for the Caguas Criollos in the 2003 Caribbean Series and hit an impressive .375/?/.875. He scored 5 runs, drove in 6 and hit 3 homers, the most in the tournament. Orlando made the All-Tournament team in the outfield alongside Luis Polonia and Jose Valentin. Amazingly, the old-timer also stole 6 bases.
Merced struggled for the Astros in 2003 as the 36-year-old veteran only managed a .231/.283/.373 line for a 67 OPS+, clearly his career-worst in the majors (and similar to his time in Japan). He batted .188/.250/.319 in 76 pinch-hit appearances, spent 7 games at DH and only played 41 games in the field.
Merced hit .277/.355/.426 for a 106 OPS+ in 1,391 games in the major leagues. A well-rounded offensive threat, he was that rare player with a better OPS as a pinch-hitter (798) than overall (781).
Merced was a coach for the Tulsa Drillers from 2006 to July 2, 2007, when he resigned. He was replaced by Mike Coolbaugh, who died less than a month later when he was hit by a liner while in the first base coach's box. Merced managed the Rojos del Águila de Veracruz to the 2012 Mexican League title. He was a coach for the West Virginia Power in 2013.
Sources: "Luis Clemente's uncle put Merced on pro track" by Luke Krneta in the 1990 Pittsburgh Press, 1986-1987 Baseball America Statistics Reports, 1988-1991, 2001 and 2004 Baseball Almanacs, Japanbaseballdaily.com by Gary Garland, 1989 and 1991 Baseball Guides, 1999 Sport Magazine poll results as reported on the Pirates unofficial e-mail list