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.
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.