The free agent market is always weak when it comes to shortstop. Some years there are guys like Jose Reyes, but they usually go to the highest bidders on massive contracts. Most teams hold onto their shortstops, and most teams hoard shortstop prospects. As a result, if the Pirates want a good shortstop, they’re going to have to develop one internally.
That could happen in a few years with Alen Hanson. Until then, the Pirates have a decision to make. They could go with Jordy Mercer as their starter until Hanson arrives. If that happens, they’d probably need a backup for Mercer, specifically someone who could provide defense. They could try to find a starter to replace Mercer, shifting Mercer to a backup role, and a platoon role at second base. The options for starting shortstops are slim, making that route less likely.
Here is a look at the upcoming free agent shortstops, via MLBTR. Thoughts on the best options are below.
Robert Andino (30)
Clint Barmes (35)
Willie Bloomquist (36)
Jamey Carroll (40)
Alexi Casilla (29)
Stephen Drew (31)
Yunel Escobar (31) – $5MM club option
Rafael Furcal (36)
Alex Gonzalez (36)
Nick Green (35)
Cesar Izturis (34)
Derek Jeter (40) – $8MM+ player option with a $3MM buyout
John McDonald (39)
Jhonny Peralta (32)
Brendan Ryan (32)
The Pirates could replace Jordy Mercer with a better alternative, although not many alternatives exist on the upcoming free agent market. Looking at the list above, there are pretty much two starting options on the market.
Stephen Drew - If the Pirates want to go with a starter other than Jordy Mercer, then Drew looks to be the top option. He’s coming off a year where he had a 3.4 WAR, which made him one of the top ten shortstops in baseball. He had a .777 OPS, which was similar to the production Jordy Mercer saw. However, he had much better defense than Mercer, which explains the two additional wins. One problem with Drew is that he’s been inconsistent, in part due to injuries. He was a -0.3 WAR player in 2012. He was a 1.7 WAR player in 2011. He had a monster 4.7 WAR in 2010, but that and his 2013 season were the only years above a 2.0. Expecting more than a 2.0 WAR would be optimistic. Drew is also likely to get a qualifying offer, and Joel Sherman projects he could receive $12 M per year over four years.
If you knew that Drew was going to be a 3.4 WAR player for the next four years, then you’d sign him in an instant for that price, and gladly give up the pick. In his career as a starter he has averaged a 1.8 WAR per season. That’s probably the average production you could expect going forward, especially at ages 31-34. Mercer had a 1.4 WAR in half a season this year. So while Drew had the better 2013, his inconsistent career suggests that won’t continue. He could very well end up being the same value as Mercer, only at $12 M more and with a forfeited draft pick in the process.
Jhonny Peralta - Unlike Drew, Peralta has been consistent. He’s provided strong defensive value at shortstop the last few years, and his offense has been strong most years, with a few one year dips below a .700 OPS. In the last three years Peralta has averaged a 3.67 WAR. He’s coming off a year with a 3.6 WAR, which is slightly better than Drew. Peralta has a good track record of health, unlike Drew. But then there’s the PED suspension. How much of Peralta’s strong performances were due to PEDs? How much of his strong healthy was PED related? Can he continue this at the age of 32 and beyond without the assistance of PEDs? The last three years look great, and you don’t know when he started using PEDs or the effect they had, but it does look suspicious that he was a 2.0 WAR player in the first six years of his career, and jumped to a 3.6 WAR per year in the last three. The recent numbers look good here, but the PED suspension is a red flag.
If the Pirates decide to keep Mercer, then they’ll need a backup. In Triple-A they’ve got Chase d’Arnaud. Josh Harrison can play shortstop, but you don’t want him playing shortstop. Ivan De Jesus used to be a talented defender at short, but that was before his knee injury a few years ago. The Pirates could use the opposite of Mercer: a strong defensive backup who could come in during the late innings, and who could start with an extreme ground ball pitcher on the mound. Basically, what they had last year with Mercer and Clint Barmes. Because of that, there’s no better place to start than…
Clint Barmes - It’s not going to be popular to suggest bringing back Clint Barmes. However, he does one thing very well, and that’s provide strong defense. He was the second best defensive shortstop in the majors last year, behind Andrelton Simmons. With Mercer and Barmes splitting time, the Pirates had a 1.6 WAR at shortstop, which ranked 18th in the majors. That might improve with Mercer getting more playing time next year, but then again it might stay the same as Mercer’s defense could drag down his extra offense. The bulk of the value is going to come from Mercer’s side, so the backup isn’t going to be responsible for the overall standing.
Barmes could provide value with his defense, serving as that late inning replacement, or starter with an extreme ground ball pitcher on the mound. That would make shortstop an offensive black hole again at times, but if the Pirates work to upgrade first base and/or right field, the offensive need at shortstop wouldn’t be as great. He was worth $3 M last year. If the Pirates got him for $2 M per year, he’d provide value on his contract. Barmes told me he was willing to return to the Pirates back during the playoffs, but the team hadn’t approached him at the time. If they don’t replace Mercer as the starter, then the 2013 formation from the second half would be the best route for the Pirates to go, at least until Alen Hanson arrives in 2015.
Brendan Ryan - He’s basically the same as Barmes — all defense, no offense. The difference is Ryan is younger. The Pirates could probably get Barmes, but if they can’t, they could go for Ryan as an alternative defensive backup to Mercer. The advantage Barmes has is that he already knows the Pirates system, knows the shifting tendencies, and is already a leader in the clubhouse.
I personally don’t trust Stephen Drew, due to the injuries, age, inconsistent play, and the fact that he’s coming off what looks like a contract year. You’d like to trust Jhonny Peralta, and hope that the PED use had zero impact on his performance. There aren’t a lot of examples of players who came back from true PED suspensions and had success. I say “true” because Marlon Byrd is an obvious example of a guy who was suspended and came back successful, but Byrd’s suspension was supposedly for medication, and not performance enhancers.
Peralta did say he wanted to stay with the Tigers, even if that meant playing in left field. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Tigers want to keep him, since they’ve moved on at shortstop. If you believe that Peralta can continue to be successful and healthy without PEDs, then he looks like the best option at shortstop.
If that’s not the case, then the Pirates would be better off with Mercer as the starter, and Clint Barmes returning as the defensive replacement, and starter when someone like Charlie Morton takes the mound.