Back in December last year, days before the start of the Philippine Cup Playoffs, a huge trade was finalized. The deal involved Alex Cabagnot going back to San Miguel Beer and the GlobalPort Batang Pier re-acquiring Sol Mercado. The deal raised questions because it was a virtual do-over of the same trade in February of the same year. It also left fans of both teams confused because of the timing and performance of both players.
Six months ago, in the Philippine Cup, it seemed as if both Cabagnot and Mercado were finally flourishing in their new roles and teams. Cabagnot, who got a lot of flak from Petron fans for his “ball-hogging”, was the lead guard for a young Batang Pier backcourt. Terrence Romeo and Stanley Pringle weren’t ready yet and it was Cabaggie who took the responsibility of leading the team. He was a Best Player of the Conference candidate and was putting up huge scoring and assist numbers for a GlobalPort team in desperate need of offensive firepower.
Mercado on the other hand was a vital cog for a rampaging San Miguel team. Sol Train was always known as one of the best slashers in the game. For San Miguel, he used that skill to repeatedly attack the basket, draw the defense and dish out assists to June Mar Fajardo or the numerous shooters in the wings. For his entire career, Mercado was known as a star on borderline playoff teams. As a Beerman, the pressure of carrying a team was taken off his shoulders and he was free to play his game as a part of a greater whole.
Then the trade happened.
The Crunchman’s return to red and black wasn’t as impactful as expected. Even though San Miguel was getting a BPC candidate, Coach Leo Austria intelligently used him cautiously in the Philippine Cup playoffs. Rather than throw him into the fire, pressure and all, Austria used him to lead the bench mob. Because of this move, The Kraken and Arwind Santos were able to lead the team to a Philippine Cup Championship.
The payoff for Cabagnot joining the Beermen was only really evident in the Governor’s Cup. Fajardo, Marcio Lassiter and AZ Reid were the clear main guns for San Miguel in the last conference. But it was Cabagnot, along with Santos and Chris Ross that provided the additional production to support the Beermen’s main weapons. Even though Cabagnot came off the bench in the eliminations in favor of Ross, he still produced close to 10 points, four assists and one steal per game in 27 minutes. He retained his role as the lead guard off the bench but with each passing game he got better in his role and slowly regained the leadership status in San Miguel.
Cabaggie was fully unleashed in the Governor’s Cup Playoffs. This was a mix of great timing and really accepting his fit into the new San Miguel system. When Coach Austria fully embraced the 4-Out offensive system around Fajardo, it was only natural that Cabagnot play heavier minutes. In the semifinals, with Ross suffering a back injury, Crunchman finally got back the starting PG role for San Miguel, and he didn’t disappoint. Cabagnot put on a show against Rain or Shine. Playing 34 minutes in the series, he averaged 14 points, four rebounds, and close to 10 assists on 58 percent three-point shooting.
Cabagnot was the final piece that San Miguel needed. He was the key player that turned the Beermen into a great team. His shooting helped spread the floor so that Fajardo and Reid had more space to operate inside. His ability to get into the paint replicated Mercado’s role in San Miguel and because of this, the team did not miss a beat. It’s ironic that Petron/San Miguel fans criticized Cabagnot for being a ball-hog back when he was traded away. In fact, it was his passing in the Governor’s Cup playoffs that helped unlock Lassiter’s shooting.
Unfortunately, Mercado didn’t experience the same success. His homecoming was short-lived. After GlobalPort was eliminated from Philippine Cup contention, he was shipped out to make way for the young back court of Romeo and Pringle. The Sol Train was derailed by injuries in the Commissioner’s Cup and was never really able to claim a stake on a young Barako Bull back court. When he was finally healthy, Mercado was on the move again. His final landing spot for the year was in Ginebra, to try and carve space in a crowded backcourt.
Mercado never got a real chance to showcase his game after he was traded from San Miguel. In Ginebra, he only got real minutes towards the end of the conference. His best game was in the quarterfinals, when he logged 40 minutes and put up a 21-3-7 statline in an elimination loss to Alaska.
The controversial trade back in December ended up affecting the careers and legacies of Mercado and Cabagnot as well as the identity of the San Miguel Beermen.
Mercado remains to be a perennial trade chip looking for his first championship. Cabagnot was able to revive his image as a veteran leader for a champion San Miguel squad. The Beermen might have won their two championships this year with Mercado at the helm. But with Cabagnot running the show, San Miguel has a new identity as the league’s most dangerous inside-outside team. One that’s poised to win even more championships in the near future.
Photos by Paul Ryan Tan