We’re seeing a change around baseball at the shortstop position with a rich influx of talent in recent years. Shortstops appear to be entering a golden age where many teams best player is their shortstop. Gone are the days when your shortstop was glove only and any offense was a bonus. We are seeing all around superb athletes that can rake, hit for power, steal bases and provide plus defense in the hole. Players like Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Addison Russell, Xander Bogaerts, Trevor Story and Brandon Crawford are already turning into stars and will be most likely be joined by the six shortstops ranked in the top 15 of all MLB prospects.
And the Pirates seem to be getting left behind with Jordy Mercer. To quickly answer the headline above—no, he’s not the worst…but he’s not that far off.
Out of the 23 qualified shortstops with enough plate appearances last season, Mercer ranked 20th in WAR (1.3) according to FanGraphs. The only shortstops worse than Mercer were the Marlins Adeiny Hechavarria, Alcides Escobar of the Royals and the unemployed Alexei Ramirez.
Mercer will begin his sixth ML season when the Bucs break camp in Bradenton this spring. He was never tabbed to hit at the top at the order, but his glove was the reason why he made 459 starts at shortstop in his career. Despite putting together his best offensive season since 2013, Mercer still managed just an 89 wRC+ and .304 wOBA in 2016.
That would be just fine and dandy if Mercer’s glove didn’t significantly regress according to advance defensive metrics. Jordy tied with Didi Gregorius for third worst in the Majors in Defensive Runs Saved with an ugly -9. Mercer also ranks 19th with a -8.4 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating). That’s a significant drop off from his 1.5 positive UZR in ’15. Is this a one-year blip? One can hope, but looking at his DFS numbers drop from +9 to 0 to -9 in just three years is not a trend that sits well with me.
So what can we expect out of Mercer in 2017? More of the same, unfortunately. According to ZiPS projections, Mercer is slated to produce a 1.4 zWAR with -3 defensively. Out of all the projected starters at SS this year, only four are projected for a worse WAR total and three of those are at least projected for positive fielding numbers. Only Luis Sardinas of the Padres is projected to be worse defensively. Steamer’s projection isn’t any better—Mercer is projected similar to his offensive numbers in ’16 (89 wRC+, .303 wOBA) and just a 1.0 WAR. That leaves Mercer as the Pirates only below average (2.0 zWAR) projection in their lineup.
Mercer stated to Clint Hurdle this offseason that he wants to play in 162 games in 2017. While I find that noble, Mercer is 30 years old and it’s probably not the best idea to run him out there for every game this season. His light bat and regressing numbers with the glove are reasons I shuddered when hearing the Pirates and Mercer discussed a possible extension at some point. Mercer is making $4.325M this season and has one more year of arbitration before he’d be a free agent in 2019. I wouldn’t extend Mercer at all especially if his defense worsens this year.
Another reason I wouldn’t extend Mercer is that there is light at the end of the tunnel at shortstop in the Pirates organization in the form of Kevin Newman. The Bucs 19th overall pick from the 2015 draft is raking his way through the organization. While not projected to be a superstar, Newman is ranked as the No. 58 prospect in MLB and has been touted as the best bat in the Pirates system. He owns a .295/.362/.396 in the minors, including 61 games at Double-A Altoona last year and has proven so far that his glove could stick at short. He also walked 62 times compared to just 66 strikeouts in his minor league career. Newman will most likely spend the season in Altoona and/or Indianapolis this year before seeing action in Pittsburgh. ZiPS actually already projects Newman as better numbers than Mercer if both were to play in the Majors this season. With Newman on his heels and another first round pick Cole Tucker behind Newman, it doesn’t make sense for the Pirates to extend Mercer past 2018.
MLB used to be that teams could plug in a solid defender at SS and get away without much of a bat, but that’s changing in today’s game and Mercer at short puts the 2017 Pirates well behind the competition in that facet of the game.