By Peter Marks

The Phillies’ Taijuan Walker hit the injured list with a hand injury and Spencer Turnbull will be out up to eight weeks due to a lat strain.

That vacancy will be filled by 25-year-old righty Michael Mercado.

A second-round pick by the Rays in 2017, Mercado’s journey to Philadelphia’s big league staff in some ways mirrors that of new rotation-mate Christopher Sanchez.

Both were traded from the Rays to the Phillies in prospect-for-prospect swaps that drew minimal attention at the time of the deal. Sanchez’s trade became one of note, as he’s risen his profile while infielder Curtis Mead (who went back to the Rays) emerged as one of Tampa Bay’s top prospects. Mercado is newer to the Phillies organization, having been acquired last November in exchange for minor league lefty Adam Leverett.

Since landing with the Phillies, Mercado’s results have been excellent. He’s pitched in 14 games with Triple-A Lehigh Valley, 10 of them starts, and posted a sterling 1.71 ERA in 47 1/3 frames. His 22.8% strikeout rate, 11.9% walk rate and .240 average on balls in play all suggest that ERA could be in for some regression, but it’s been a big step forward over his 2023 performance even if the microscopic earned run average doesn’t look entirely sustainable.

Mercado split the ’23 season between Double-A and Triple-A in the Rays’ system and worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen, pitching to a combined 4.79 ERA. To his credit, he fanned a massive 35.4% of his opponents working in short relief where his stuff could play up, but he also walked more than 13% of his opponents and surrendered a dozen longballs in 62 innings (1.74 HR/9).

Now, with the Phillies in need of rotation help, Mercado will get a short-term look at the very least. Turnbull is out until at least mid-August. Walker won’t be eligible to return until at least July 7 and has struggled to an ugly 5.60 ERA in 10 starts even when healthy this season. Top Phillies pitching prospect Andrew Painter has yet to pitch this season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The organization’s other top-ranked arm, former first-rounder Mick Abel, has an alarming 7.08 ERA and 15.5% walk rate in Triple-A this season. Depth options on the 40-man roster like Kolby Allard and Max Castillo have also pitched poorly in Triple-A.

All of that has paved the way for Mercado to get his first big league starting opportunity, more than seven years after he was selected with the No. 40 overall pick in the draft. The Phillies have one of the most enviable starting staffs in MLB with Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suarez and the aforementioned Sanchez leading the way, which should take some pressure off Mercado. But depending on how long Walker is out and how he and Mercado perform in the short-term, the former Rays prospect could pitch his way into a more prominent role with the Phils. Mercado already made his MLB debut this week, tossing one scoreless inning after being called up as a reliever, but a larger opportunity is now there for the taking.

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