Neil Walker is starting a rehab assignment with the Altoona Curve on Thursday, and could be in line to rejoin the Pittsburgh Pirates over the weekend. Walker being out has created an opportunity for Jordy Mercer to get some playing time in the majors. So far, Mercer is 3-for-15 with a double and a home run in that time. Mercer also had a .333/.404/.448 line in 109 plate appearances in Triple-A before coming up, with an impressive 11% walk rate and a low 15.6% strikeout rate.
“Jordy’s done some really good things here in a short period of time at the major league level. He did some great things in Spring Training. And he’s done some really good things in Triple-A,” Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said on Sunday. “He’s taken a good step forward.”
The big question with Mercer is more of a long-term question: can he start at shortstop? The Pirates are committed to Clint Barmes at short for the immediate future, placing a high value on his defensive skills. But Barmes is a free agent following the 2013 season. The free agent class doesn’t have many strong options next year, which means the Pirates will be left with another Barmes-type free agent (all defense, no bat), or one of their internal options. Mercer would be the favorite if they go with an internal option to replace Barmes.
The question is, how do you get Mercer to the majors? He’s been getting playing time in the majors only because Neil Walker has been injured. Once Walker returns, the Pirates will have to decide whether to keep Mercer up in a bench role, or send him back down to get everyday playing time.
“The challenge with any player that’s breaking into the big leagues is do you break him in? In a role with the idea that he becomes an everyday guy as we did back in the day with Walker? Or do you send him back out, let him play on a regular basis, and then he just comes right in as a regular?” Huntington said of Mercer making the jump to the majors. “We want to make sure we give Jordy the appropriate development time to continue to grow, because he is an option for us at short next year, and we have to give ourselves as many options as we can.”
The focus for Mercer should be on the 2014 season, but what is the best approach to get him ready for the majors? You want him to get as much playing time as possible, but you also would like to see what he could do in the majors before committing to him for a full season.
If Mercer played on the bench, his playing time would be limited. John McDonald has been a disaster off the bench, and it would certainly be welcome to see Mercer replace him. But McDonald only has 29 plate appearances on the season in a little over a month. That’s hardly the type of playing time you’d want to see Mercer receive. If that’s the option, then he’s better off in Triple-A.
It’s not like bench players can’t receive playing time. Brandon Inge is an example. Inge has been on the roster for a little over two weeks, and already has 35 plate appearances. He has started nine games, getting time at second base, third base, and right field. Mercer wouldn’t be an option for right field, but he could play second, third, and short. As I wrote last night, he could also be an option against left-handers, since he’s had some success against lefties in his career. That would allow Mercer to ease in to the majors, get adjusted to major league pitching, and all while seeing somewhat regular playing time. Getting adjusted is key, since Mercer usually struggles with the bat in his initial jump to a new level. Looking at his Double-A and Triple-A numbers:
Double-A: .702 OPS in 2010, .816 in 2011
Triple-A: .689 OPS in 2010, .778 in 2011, .852 in 2012
The Pirates feel that Mercer can stick at shortstop. He hasn’t played the position as much throughout the minors, but that’s mostly because he’s been at the same level as Chase d’Arnaud.
“He and Chase have always seemed to be at the same club, and Chase has had more shortstop time because he’s not as polished a shortstop as Jordy is,” Huntington said. He also noted that d’Arnaud’s injury allowed the Pirates to give Mercer time at short to sharpen things up with his game. D’Arnaud could be starting a rehab assignment later this month, and is already back to baseball activities.
I talked with Pirates Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway a few weeks ago about Mercer being an option at short. Broadway noted that Mercer is a vanilla type, but can make the routine plays.
“He’s very reliable,” Broadway said. “There’s nothing flashy about him. He’s a vanilla type and reliable. You can count on him to make the routine plays.”
It’s pretty much established that the Pirates like Mercer, and feel he could be an option next year. But that does bring up the question of how to get him ready. Personally I think they should keep him in the majors. Give him all of the at-bats that John McDonald would normally get. Give him time as a platoon player, taking at-bats against left-handers in place of Pedro Alvarez, or even Neil Walker. Let him sub for Clint Barmes, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez when needed. The only problem with all of this is that Mercer would have to be on the depth chart ahead of Brandon Inge, and I’m not convinced Clint Hurdle would take that approach. The only hopeful sign that would suggest otherwise is that Mercer has started all four games since coming up, and Brandon Inge has been on the bench for two of those games.
If the Pirates continue making Mercer a priority over Inge, and get rid of John McDonald instead of sending Mercer to Triple-A, then I think that would be a much better approach to getting Mercer ready for 2014. Not to mention, it might even make the 2013 team better.