BRADENTON, Fla. – When Clint Hurdle was the manager in Colorado around 2003-2004, he watched Clint Barmes make his transition to the major leagues, getting advice from Walt Weiss, who was an instructor in the system at the time. Barmes and Hurdle later reunited in Pittsburgh, with Barmes taking on the mentor role for a young shortstop coming up from the minors by the name of Jordy Mercer.
The work that Barmes did with Mercer helped the current Pirates’ shortstop improve on his defense, and led to him being the starter over the last few years. And now, just like what happened with Barmes, Mercer has gone from being the protegé to the mentor, with Kevin Newman making his way up through the minors.
“I really appreciate those type of relationships in baseball, and how that transcends,” Hurdle said. “I got to watch Walt Weiss put his hands on Barmes. And then I got to watch Barmes come over here and put his hands on Jordy. And now Jordy with Newman. The handing of the baton or the tutelage, the mentoring, is very special in this game.”
Newman has used Mercer as a guide in the past. The 2015 first round pick watched video of Mercer in 2016 during his first full season, using him as a guide for how to set up early, routes to balls, and other skills. But Newman didn’t actually get a chance to work with Mercer until he was invited to MLB Spring Training this year. Now he gets the chance for one-on-one work, and that has taken the learning to a new level.
“Having seen him now in person, it makes sense why they had me watching video of him,” Newman said. “He’s a great athlete and a great shortstop. Everyday I’m out there taking ground balls with him, I try to look at things he’s doing. Because he’s there. He’s a big league shortstop for a reason. He’s great at what he does. Anything I can take away whenever we’re out there, I just try to watch him and gather the little things here and there.”
Most of what Newman gathers has been how Mercer goes about his work day, his approach on and off the field, how Mercer prepares for games, and instant feedback on plays on the field.
“More so when we were taking ground balls, certain ground balls that are in certain locations, I’d ask him if he’d backhand that, get around it, charge it,” Newman said. “So we talk about little things like that. Kind of those in between ground balls. With little situations like that, I’ve learned different routes, how to get there faster, how to get rid of it quicker, things like that.”
Mercer has embraced the role, telling Newman to come to him with any questions that he has. That happened after the first game, when Newman fielded a comebacker where there was a mixup on the field. He asked Mercer about the play, they sat down and talked about it, and reviewed what Mercer would have done. But not all of the talks are about plays. A lot of the discussions are about MLB life, and getting Newman to a point where he’s comfortable in the big leagues.
“It’s pretty neat, first of all, to be able to be in the shoes to be able to [mentor],” Mercer said. “Barmes not only taught me on the field stuff, but a lot of the off the field stuff too. Being a new guy, and being around veterans. Being in a big league clubhouse. What to wear. The little things. I think that’s what kind of makes you feel comfortable, just to help your transition, help you feel comfortable. I know it made my life so much easier, and made my transition so much easier. It helped me relax and just kind of be a part of the club. I feel like if I can do that to Kevin and help him out, help him just relax and let his game shine and not worry about the other stuff, it will make his transition easier too.”
Mercer also went through the process of watching video of MLB players while he was in the minors, but noted that getting direct help from an MLB player is another level.
“I think it’s huge. I really do,” Mercer said. “Experience goes a long way in this game, more than anyone can imagine. I didn’t know at the time, being young, you don’t know it. Now that I almost have five years, I’m such a better player than I’ve ever been from experience. Now you see why a lot of these playoff teams load up on these older guys for a playoff run. There’s nothing that can count for experience. Whenever you can get a guy like that to help you out, to share that knowledge and share that experience — I’ve played in playoff games, I’ve been on 98 win teams, I’ve done a lot of good things — just to share some of that knowledge with a young kid and just to help him out in any which way that’s possible, something that he can put in his game and take it where he wants to take it.”
It’s hard to believe that we’ve already reached the point where Mercer is a veteran player. It seemed like only yesterday he was a young player coming up through the system, and making the jump to the majors getting help from Barmes. Now, he’s giving help to Newman, who might be a mentor to someone else several years down the line. Such is the life in baseball.
“That’s crazy. Just the other day we were in Lynchburg, playing A-ball,” Mercer said. “You’re blessed to play this game. You just can’t take anything for granted, because you don’t know how long you can play, so you stay in it as long as you can.”
“It’s just a beautiful part of the game for me,” Hurdle said. “If there’s one thing that you can guarantee yourself in life and sports, it’s change. It’s going to happen. Now to look at Jordy as a four-plus player in service time, the leadership has grown. We’ve watched him grow, professionally and personally.”
All of that raises the question as to how long the Pirates will have Mercer. He has one more year of arbitration remaining after this season. Newman isn’t exactly knocking on the door, but could be ready to arrive in the next year and a half. Mercer and the Pirates briefly discussed an extension in the offseason, but the talks didn’t gain much ground.
“We kind of threw it out there in the offseason a little bit,” Mercer said of an extension. “It didn’t get any traction, which is fine. I’m just going to play it year-by-year and see where it goes. I’d love to stay here. I’d love to be one of the older guys and kind of teach and do whatever. We have a lot of young guys coming up, a lot of good prospects. It’s an exciting time to be here and be a part of this organization. We’ll see where it goes.”
Mercer knows full well that this mentor role also means that he’s helping to groom his eventual replacement. He took the starting job from Barmes, and Newman will one day take the starting job from him. That’s just life playing for a small market team.
“I think it’s just all grooming players for when it’s the right time. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Mercer said. “You don’t want to rush a young player up, and them being overwhelmed and not ready, and you kind of take a step back. … We don’t have a lot of money around, so you have to groom them the right way, and make sure they’re ready, and bring them up at the right time.”
Newman still has some work to do. His offensive skills are solid, but he’s working to improve his ability to drive the ball. He finished last year at 183 pounds, and entered this year at 193, after adding some muscle in the offseason. The goal here is to be able to drive the ball consistently, translating those A-ball and Double-A results to eventual stats in the majors.
“I’m still a gap to gap hitter,” Newman said. “I’m going to continue to be that hitter. It never hurts to gain a little extra muscle. With that, I’m hoping for a couple more balls in the gap, and that would be good for everyone.”
The biggest thing Newman has to work on is his defense. He’s shown the skills needed to stick at shortstop. He will provide positive value with his bat, likely more value than Mercer has shown. He’s been working over the last year to transition his defense to the point where it can provide positive value, or at least avoid taking value from his bat. If he can learn from Mercer the same way Mercer learned from Barmes, then Newman could end up being an upgrade over Mercer when he eventually takes over.
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