Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap: Shortstop

Jordy Mercer was a 1.4 WAR shortstop in 2013. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Jordy Mercer was a 1.4 WAR shortstop in 2013. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

In my opinion, shortstop is the hardest position to fill at the major league level. That’s probably not just my opinion. There’s a reason why teams don’t trade young shortstop talent. There’s a reason why guys like Yuniesky Betancourt get starting jobs in the majors. Shortstop is the hardest position to defend, requiring the most athleticism. Catcher might be tied, but catching requires skills completely different than shortstop, and you don’t always have to be as athletic to play the position.

The Pirates had a good shortstop for the longest time in Jack Wilson. He was great defensively, and had decent hitting for the position. But Wilson was traded in 2009, and quickly started the decline of his career after that. Meanwhile, the Pirates had no one internally to take over. They went with Ronny Cedeno for a few years, but he was frustratingly inconsistent. They turned to Clint Barmes in 2012. He was one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, but one of the worst offensive shortstops, taking away from his defensive value.

Barmes started back at the position in 2013, but was more of the same. He had great defense and really bad offense. The Pirates occasionally used John McDonald, who had even worse offense, and not as good defense. By the middle of May, they turned to Jordy Mercer for his first start. By the middle of June, Mercer was the regular starter.

Mercer doesn’t have the defensive value that Barmes has, but he makes up for that with his offense. He posted a .285/.336/.435 line, with his .772 OPS ranking fourth on the Pirates. That’s also a strong line for shortstops in general. Of all shortstops with 300+ plate appearances, Mercer’s OPS ranked 8th in the majors, out of 36 qualifying shortstops.

From a value standpoint, Mercer was worth almost a full win more than Barmes. In 365 PA, Mercer had a 1.4 WAR, while Barmes had an 0.6 WAR in 330 PA. Mercer’s value might go down next year. Somehow they finished with similar plate appearance numbers, but Barmes saw 804 innings, while Mercer saw 594 innings at short. Mercer had a -9.4 UZR/150, which ranked 29th out of 33 shortstops with 550+ innings at the position. Meanwhile, Barmes ranked second out of that group with a 14.2 UZR/150, falling only behind Andrelton Simmons.

If Mercer gets more playing time next year, he’s going to see his overall value drop with more innings on the field. That is unless he massively improves his defense. Since the time he was drafted, Mercer was seen as an offense first shortstop. He could still provide positive value at the position due to his offense, but like Barmes, he’s going to be an average to below average option.

Without developing any other options, it’s hard to beat that. The free agent market isn’t going to produce a better option, and people don’t just trade away talented shortstops without those shortstops bringing a massive return.

As a team, the Pirates finished with a 1.6 WAR at the shortstop position, which ranked 18th in all of baseball. There’s room for improvement, but I think that improvement is ultimately going to come in a few years. For now, having Mercer will be a good stopgap until a better alternative arrives.

The Future

Alen Hanson is the top shortstop prospect in the Pirates' system.

Alen Hanson is the top shortstop prospect in the Pirates’ system.

That better alternative could very well be Alen Hanson. The young infielder just turned 21 last week, and is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League. He spent the last month of the 2013 season playing in Altoona and getting a taste of Double-A ball. The results haven’t been strong at either stop. Hanson’s offense has been down, although this could be chalked up to a first look against upper level pitching from a young player.

Hanson has great offensive tools, with good hitting abilities from either side of the plate, a quick swing, and a ton of speed. He has the ability to bunt for a hit, but in 2013 he also developed a tendency to show bunt, then hit successfully into a drawn in infield. That ability, combined with his speed, will keep infielders guessing. He will eventually hit in the upper levels. The questions will surround his defense.

The big story this year with Hanson was his high error count. He recorded a lot of errors, especially during the first ten games in Bradenton. The thing about his errors is that most of them came on routine plays. Hanson would relax his arm or his fielding techniques, and as a result he would throw wild or let the ball bounce off the heel of his glove. You would watch that, then a few plays later you would see him range deep into the hole, make a “Derek Jeter” jump throw, and fire a strike to first to get an out.

Hanson displays a lot of tools that say he can stick at shortstop. He’s got a lot of range, and his arm strength is good enough to stay at the position. The only problem was his tendency to take off on routine plays. He was only 20 this year, so that could be chalked up to a lack of maturity. As he gets older, that could go away. It’s going to be the difference between him potentially being a top shortstop at the position, and Ronny Cedeno with better offense.

If you look around the league, there are questions surrounding every top shortstop prospect. Didi Gregorius has great defense, but there are questions of how much he can hit. There were questions about Jean Segura’s ability to be a starting shortstop before the Brewers acquired him. You’d love to have Jurickson Profar, but he’s more the exception than the rule. In Hanson’s case, he’s got the chance to provide solid offensive value from the shortstop position, while having the defense tools to at least not be a liability. Considering the weakness of the position around the league, that would put Hanson in the top half of the shortstop rankings.

He could use some time to develop. A year in Double-A in 2014, with a brief look at Triple-A at the end of the season won’t hurt. Spending several months in Triple-A in 2015 would also be good. Mercer should be fine as the starter in Pittsburgh until Hanson is ready. Hanson profiles to be the best bet at shortstop in the long-term. For now, he’s at least a year and a half away, as he needs time in the upper levels, and needs to grow and mature.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    With more innings, perhaps Mercer can turn himself into at least an average fielding SS?

    JJ Hardy was. Never thought to be that good defensively when he came up and he just won a Gold Glove.

  • IC Bob

    I think Barmes gets a better UZR rating because he jumps in the air on every play. I still just don’t see it with him defensively when I watch. What ever happened to DeArnaud. I know he had a lot of injuries last year and a low BA. Is he completely off the radar. Wasn’t he suppose to be a better fielder then Mercer?

  • leadoff

    Since UZR is a waste of time to me, I will say with the advanced stats that the Pirates use to place their players defensively Mercer should be a fine SS for many years with the Pirates, he can hit and he can make the plays he should make, that is all you need from a SS. Hanson will never beat Mercer out if he can’t make routine plays. Chuck Tanner used to say about his fielders, don’t show me flashy, just make the plays you are supposed to make. A UZR score should never be the sole criteria for determining a fielder. If UZR is what the Pirates use, Marte would be the center fielder for the Pirates. As far as the Pirates are concerned I am sure they look at and value every stat, they are very judicial in how they use those stats.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ian.rothermund Ian Rothermund

      The only reason Marte isn’t the centerfielder is because McCutchen is the face of the franchise, and considering PNC’s dimensions, it’s ideal to have two center field types out there anyhow. They’re both very good out there, but I would still say that Marte is superior, McCutchen has just done a lot to improve since he first came up.

      • leadoff

        Not to mention, who is going to tell McCutchen he is not the centerfielder? Moving him would be quite a blow to Cutch’s ego. Sometimes chemistry is important.

        • stickyweb

          Absolutely leadoff, Cutch is there to stay for the foreseeable future. But at some point, with 2 younger, better options (after Polanco is here), the switch has to be made. It will be interesting to see how much of a team player Cutch is then. I think he’ll handle it fine.

          • leadoff

            I think that Marte or Polanco will be better in CF, but I don’t think it would be very noticable to the common eye, therefore I don’t foresee them going through the possible aggravation of making a change, especially since the Pirates will be holding on to the slim hope of getting McCutchen to sign another contract. Also McCutchen has made himself into a pretty good center fielder these days.

  • emjayinTN

    I am excited for Jordy Mercer because he could have wilted very easily under the scrutiny of a pennant run. He made some stupid mistakes at times, but it was his first year up and he did very well overall. I truly do not understand the UZR/150 ratings. We have Range Factor, Range Factor/G, Range Factor/9 innings, ultimate zone rating and now ultimate zone rating/150 – is there a possibility of a standard method to evaluate position players?

    PED Peralta for $6 mil+ or Drew for $12 mil+ is ridiculous. Sign Barmes for our utility IF for 2 years/$6 mil or less if possible. Alen Rery Hanson is the real deal who finished with around 32 E’s with 16 of them happening in the first half month. Hit well at Hi A, with decent power for a SS and will play all next year at AA as a 21 year old and just got picked as an All Star in the AFL – nice stuff. Max Moroff is another switchhitt right behind him and he is 20 and will be at Hi A.

  • jschwartz

    Tim, you started off the column by praising Jack Wilson’s defense, and I totally agree. I think Wilson can also be used as an example of what Hanson may provide in the near future. When Wilson first came up he showed tremendous athleticism at the position, however he was constantly having mental lapses on the routine plays. He was once even taken to task on the field by a reliever…can’t remember the name. This just goes to show the a shortstop making routine errors at a young age is not surprising. Wilson, after all, turned out to be a gold glove callibur short stop by his prime….shame he never won one.

  • https://www.facebook.com/marty.leap Marty

    I knew Mercer was a huge liability in the field this year, but an UZR of -9.4!? Yikes, didn’t realize it was THAT bad. The Pirates HAVE to try and improve SS this offseason.