The Pirates could do a lot worse than having Jordy Mercer as their starting shortstop.

Mercer entered the 2017 season as the starter for the fourth straight season, after taking over the role in 2013 from Clint Barmes. Throughout his time as a starter, he has been mostly below average, topping out as an average shortstop at best. His identity has mostly been a strong defender who can provide some offense, but not enough to get him out of the bottom of the order.

During the 2016 season, Mercer saw a decline in his defense. For the first time as a starter, he had negative defensive value. He had a -9 DRS and a -11 Plus Minus, along with a -10.1 UZR/150. All three of those numbers were well down from his 2014-2015 seasons. The DRS rating went down 18 points in two years, and the PM rating went down 20 in the same timeframe. He went from a 2.0 UZR/150 in 2015 to -10.1 in 2016.

The hope was that Mercer would bounce back to his usual self in 2017, and he mostly did that. He improved to a -2 DRS, a -5 PM, and a -1.9 UZR/150. His overall defensive value was below the 2014-15 seasons, but well above the 2016 results.

What helped is that Mercer’s offense stuck around. He didn’t have the best bat in 2015, dropping to a .613 OPS. While the defense struggled in 2016, the offense improved to a .701 OPS. He followed that up in 2017 with a .733 OPS, his best mark since a .772 OPS in 2013. Those years are also linked by his power production. He had a .151 ISO, which is similar to the .150 in 2013, and better than anything in the three years between.

Overall, Mercer was able to put up a 1.6 fWAR in 2017, which ranked 15th out of 22 qualified shortstops, putting him slightly below average. The Pirates could do better, but they could also do worse.

The Future

The Pirates saw improvements at the shortstop position when they switched from Clint Barmes to Mercer back in 2013. The goal is to see further improvements when they eventually move on from Mercer. They currently have two shortstop prospects making their way through the upper levels with the chance to provide those improvements.

The first to the majors will likely be Kevin Newman. The 2015 first round pick arrived in Indianapolis this year, hitting for a .283/.314/.373 line in 178 plate appearances. Newman doesn’t provide power, and while he has some speed, it’s not enough to add value on the bases. He’s a guy who excels at making contact and hitting to all fields, with great control of the strike zone.

Newman’s walk rate dropped this year in both Altoona, and then further down in Indianapolis. He will need to get back to last year’s 9-10% range in the upper levels in order to maximize his value. His strikeout rate remains low, topping out at 12.4% in Triple-A, showing that he’s not being over-matched.

The defense from Newman reminds me of Mercer. He’s got some range, and has been working the last two years on maximizing that range by getting an earlier jump and taking the most efficient routes to the ball. That was the key for Mercer becoming a good defender, and I could see Newman matching that production. Ultimately, I see Newman’s upside as an average shortstop, with the same defense as Mercer, and a better ability to hit for average and get on base, although without the power.

The Pirates may be able to get more of a future impact from Cole Tucker. The 2014 first rounder had a strong season in 2017, starting off in Bradenton and hitting for a .285/.364/.426 line. When I saw Tucker last year, he would make solid contact on a ball, then follow it up with several weak grounders on pitches that he rolled over. This year has been more consistent. He’s making solid contact more frequently, which led to better power numbers.

Tucker has also seen improvements with his defense at shortstop, looking a lot smoother at the position than in years past. I could see him having a similar defensive upside as Newman and Mercer, and possibly better if he continues this trend.

What really separates Tucker is the power. He projects for more power than Newman due to his bigger frame, and he started to show that this year. He also projects to be a guy who can hit for average and get on base, making him a potentially better version of Mercer on offense. Then there’s the speed factor. He stole 47 bases this year, providing additional value to his game.

Tucker comes with more risk than Newman, as he still needs to fully adjust to Double-A, and then has the jumps to Triple-A and the majors. He also has seen some injuries in his short career, and ended his 2017 season with a hand injury. I wouldn’t call him injury prone though, as his hand was stepped on during a slide, which likely won’t be a recurring issue.

Behind Tucker and Newman, the Pirates have other interesting options like Stephen Alemais, Adrian Valerio, and Rodolfo Castro in the lower levels. But in terms of short-term solutions, Tucker and Newman are the focus.

The Pirates won’t see either of them arriving in time for the 2018 season to start. They might need Mercer for one more year, playing a Clint Barmes type role to make the transition to Newman. From there, it will be interesting to see whether Tucker eventually takes over the job at shortstop. That could move Newman to second base, or if second base is filled, it could make Newman a valuable bench player or a valuable trade piece.

I don’t see Newman arriving until mid-2018 at the earliest, and Tucker probably won’t be up until mid-2019 at the earliest. So that battle is still over a year away, and probably something we will be discussing in next year’s shortstop recap. For now, the Pirates are getting below average production at the shortstop position from Mercer. It will be hard to find better production for a cheaper price this offseason, which is why I’d expect them to keep him around until Newman is ready to take over.

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30 COMMENTS

  1. Buccos just can’t afford to trot out a guy whose likely outcome is something like 1.2 WAR. That might even be generous since he’s a big guy on the wrong side of 31.

    They need better or… at the very least… cheaper.

    I really do like Jordy. The team, as constructed, just needs something more than a 1.5 WAR ceiling from their SS position.

  2. Surprised Kramer didn’t get any mention in the article given the fact he is playing some SS in the AFL. For years, Mercer was behind D’Arnaud at SS coming up through the minors. Jordy was the guy, like Kramer, who played 2B and 3B and occasional SS. D’Arnaud, like Newman, always got the prime SS assignments.

    • At AA, the “stepchild” was Josh Harrison. He was pushed to 3d , from 2nd, more as an afterthought, while Mercer and D’Arnaud alternated between 2nd and SS. It was apparent to me after a while that Harrison was a better offensive player than both, though his low walk rate didn’t help his OBP.

  3. If Newman can not make it as the Pirates starting shortstop then how can he become a valuable trade piece? Who would be worse off then the Pirates at shortstop that would make him valuable?

  4. Max Moroff played SS at AAA Indy and again while Mercer was out at the end of the year. Why is he never mentioned as a replacement? he has the power, seems to have a decent eye … what about his game removes him from the discussion?

    • i’ve basically asked the same thing. Tim just doesnt think he’s good enough at defense to be there every day.

      my eyeballs and the limited-mlb-sample size stats disagreed with Tim, but gotta trust him since he’s been following Moroff forever.

      It’s not like Mercer is Captain Rangy at SS anyway.

  5. Any chance Kramer can take the SS job away from Newman? Is that what the Pirates may be thinking with him playing SS in the AFL? Newman’s bat just doesn’t look good enough.

    • My guess, he is just getting some positional flexibility so he can become a super utility type. Speed his bat up to the majors.

    • I like Kramer’s chances of jumping into the upper level mess of middle IF and coming out at the top of the pack pre Cole Tucker. He introduces a potential useful left-handed bat. I realize it’s ideal to have everyday players but the Pirates being of limited means will always need platoon options-kramer can be useful at least as bench utility if.

  6. In all honesty, if Newman is Mercer, but cheaper and with less power, what is gained by keeping him in AAA? Theoretically, this team needs to cut costs if they hope to improve, saving $6 million at a position where they have never gotten offensive production seems like a good place to start. There is absolutely nothing Newman is working on in the minors that he couldn’t work out at the major league level.

    • If they think that Newman can get within 0.5 WAR of Mercer for 10% of the price, then i think we all know what the right move is.

      I tend to think they should dump Mercer and Harrison, play Moroff at 2b, and buy a 10-16 million dollar SS. but playing Newman and spending that money on different fun stuff would be fine too.

  7. I was surprised to see Mercer listed as a non tender candidate on MLB Trade Rumors for their Offseason Outlook post on the Pirates. Figure he had to be a lock to be brought back to fill the gap

    • If they need to save $. I guess they could go with Harrison and SRod in the short term. But I agree with you. That would be surprising.

    • What gap exactly? If Newman really had something to work on, he should be doing so in the AFL. The fact that he isn’t there tells me that he is probably ready for a higher level of talent, and is just resting up from baseball games. There is probably no reason to keep Mercer, other than he is a Hurdle guy.

    • gotta think a nontender would be unnecessary. Even if they just get some sort of sinkerballing reliever in return. There’s no doubt that Jordy should have positive trade value. not big. but positive.

  8. This seems like a pretty low ceiling for a former first round draft pick in Newman. Sounds like a bad pick even if he becomes a Mercer clone with less power as currently projected.

    • I don’t know the percentage but not all 1st round picks make it to the majors. Would I like to see them do better, yes. But I have no problem with this result.

    • If you have a 1st round pick that becomes a starter in the majors, that is success, especially after the top 10. If your first rounder becomes a starting SS, that is the bonus.

    • if you say that a guy is a bad pick, then you should present some guys who they shouldve drafted instead.

      Newman… at this point… has a better outlook than most of the guys drafted around him

      i mean fine… they couldve taken Buehler or Soroka… but that’s about the extent of the guys who were clearly better in that range. unless i’m missing someone.

      echoing these other guys… if you get a real MLB player at pick 20, it’s not necessarily a *win*, but it certainly isn’t a *loss*

  9. While Jordy Mercer may have limited range, he has sure hands and a terrific arm. He seldom has a throwing error, his throws have a lot of velocity and the hands and arm help with the double play. Does the UZR and/or DRS or other metrics give him enough credit for those attributes?

  10. Tim I’m not an .733 OPS is a-much of an improvement & b-pretty poor for
    a guy who played 145 games & had 580 ab. I agree that Newman appears
    to be Mercer clone & I dearly hope Rodriguez plays less than 5 games at
    short. Tucker can’t get here soon enough

  11. I’m surprised to read that Tucker’s defense is not better than Newman/Mercer. Like most fans I like Mercer, he is a steady glove that hits lefties well. But his time as a bench player has come. Get your shit together Newman, we need you sooner rather than later.

  12. I’m still a Mercer fan. Reliable, dependable,
    good representative of his team and community.
    =
    From what I have heard, a real quality person.

  13. I like Mercer for what he is. I thought he might hit a few more homers than he has. I am definitely higher on Tucker but still hold out some hope that Newman may eventually learn to drive the ball better, but I am not betting the house on it either.

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