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 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.