ST. LOUIS – Every once in awhile, you’ll witness the success story of a baseball player who had an unusually long journey in the minors leagues, but kept their big dreams alive and eventually earned a call to the majors.

Last year, James Naile debuted for his home state St. Louis Cardinals after seven years in the minor leagues. This year, 34-year-old infielder Drew Maggi made his Major League debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates after 13 years in the minor leagues, one of the longest waits in quite some time.

The St. Louis Cardinals promoted another player this week who sort of follows that narrative.

Óscar Mercado made his St. Louis Cardinals debut Wednesday evening as a defensive replacement. He earned his first start with the Cardinals on Thursday, and it was quite impressive. Three hits, three runs scored, two stolen bases and four putouts between the corner outfield spots.

Perhaps it was a bit overshadowed in a historic Home Run Derby-like effort between the Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers, but playing at Busch Stadium is an opportunity Mercado has strived for since St. Louis drafted him ten years ago.

“It kind of just felt like my heart always led me to here,” said Mercado after Thursday’s victory.

His journey from a Cardinals prospect to a starter was a bit unconventional. The Cardinals selected Mercado in the second-round of the 2013 draft (58th overall). It proved a bit difficult for Mercado to climb the ranks early on, never playing past the Single-A level in his first four years in the Cardinals farm system.

Mercado worked his way to promotions at Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis in 2017 and 2018, particularly with his baserunning abilities. Mercado averaged around 30 stolen bases per season from 2013-2016. He also showed some pop in Springfield and Memphis, crushing 21 home runs over two seasons at the advanced levels.

On July 31, 2018, trade deadline day for that year, the Cardinals somewhat unexpectedly traded Mercado to the Cleveland Indians (now the Guardians) for two other prospects. The Cardinals had a bit of a logjam in outfield at the time with Dexter Fowler on a big contract, plus Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill poised for larger roles as rookies.

Mercado, after parts of seven years in the minors, earned his MLB promotion with Cleveland in 2019. He made a strong first impression and quickly earned a starting job, hitting .269 with 15 home runs, 54 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in 115 games worth of action. The outfielder even earned some praise in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.

Then a series of unfortunate developments followed. Mercado lost his groove in the pandemic-shortened season of 2020 and moved to more of a platoon role after that. The Guardians designated him for assignment last June.

Mercado then earned a one-game stint with the Philadelphia Phillies, but was DFA’d. He then returned to Cleveland for one more shot, but was DFA’s after another five games.

Now 28 years old, Mercado wanted another chance at baseball somewhere that would give him more stability. The Cardinals showed interest in the offseason and signed him to a minor-league contract.

“This organization believed in me back when I was 18 years old,” said Mercado about his decision to reunite with the Cardinals in the offseason. “For me, it was always the chance to be able to put on this uniform and step out into that stadium.”

After injuries to regulars Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill, the Cardinals felt the need to promote a natural outfielder rather than platoon more natural infielders like Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman everyday in those spots. With the Cardinals not quite ready to bring back top prospect Jordan Walker just yet, Mercado was the next best available option.

“I’m ready for whatever they throw my way, whether it’s coming off the bench or starting the game,” said Mercado.

Mercado joins as the Cardinals have countered a slow start (once at 10-23) with sudden surge, rattling off wins in nine of the last 11 games. He also reunites at the big-league level with Cardinals skipper Oli Marmol, who managed him with Single-A affiliate Palm Beach in 2016.

“No matter what, the most special part is being a part of this franchise and just the tradition behind it,” said Mercado. “It’s a special feeling, and definitely one I’ll never forget.”

Mercado and the Cardinals continue with a four-game home series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday.