First Pitch: When to Free Jordy Mercer, and What Kind of Impact He Could Have

There have been two trends involving shortstops in the upper levels of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization. Clint Barmes has been struggling this year, and Jordy Mercer is on a hot streak.

Barmes is hitting for a .158/.192/.295 line on the year in 95 at-bats. He wasn’t exactly brought on to be a key contributor to the offense, with his primary value being his defense at shortstop. However, his defense has struggled, and the expectations on offense were much higher than this, near his career .696 OPS levels.

I liked the signing of Barmes for two reasons. One, the Pirates weren’t going to get a big time shortstop through free agency, so I felt they should go with a guy who has strong defense and a decent bat. Barmes was that guy. Second, the Pirates didn’t have any internal options ready to start the year in Pittsburgh. Barmes isn’t playing up to expectations on either side of the ball, and the Pirates now have a guy emerging as a mid-season candidate.

Jordy Mercer extended his hitting streak to 13 games tonight after going 2-for-4 with two walks. The shortstop has been on a hot streak in May, coming in to the game with a .370/.383/.457 line in 46 at-bats this month. That’s pretty much the limits of his hitting this year, as he started off cold, hitting for a .238/.347/.375 line in 80 at-bats in April.

The hitting streak has given Mercer’s value a boost, although the desperation over Barmes, and the hitting streak from Mercer have disguised the fact that Mercer’s May success is mostly an empty average. Prior to tonight he didn’t have a walk this month, after 12 in April. He also hasn’t been hitting for power, with a .087 ISO in May, compared to a .137 ISO in April.

In April, Mercer was drawing walks and hitting for power, but he wasn’t hitting for average. This month he’s hitting for average, but that empty average doesn’t come with walks or power.

I don’t anticipate Mercer will have a problem seeing power return to his game. Last year he had a .146 ISO in Triple-A. He might not draw a ton of walks, but I think there’s room for improvement over his May numbers. So the key for me is whether he can keep up this hot hitting. He might not continue to hit at a lofty .370 pace, but if he can hit for a good average, he’ll look worthy of a call up a month from now, especially if Barmes is still struggling.

I will add this disclaimer. Often when talking about major league players struggling, there’s this idea that guys coming up from Triple-A will be the solution. Just swap out several poor performers from the majors, and bring up several hot hitters in Triple-A. All of the problems will be solved, right? After all, look at the numbers those hitters are putting up. And forget that those numbers came in Triple-A.

This thought process just sets people up for disappointment. On occasion you see players come up and get off to hot starts. But I don’t think I’d count on it with Mercer. He didn’t show success in Altoona until a month in to his second season at the level. His numbers in Indianapolis last year were similar to his numbers this year in April. Based on his history, there’s a good chance that he could struggle after making the jump to the majors, just like he initially struggled in Double-A, and just like he initially struggled in Triple-A.

If Barmes is still struggling, it would make sense to call Mercer up. Why not give him a shot and see if he can actually get off to a hot start? Worst case scenario, he puts up the same performance as Barmes has been putting up. But don’t get caught in the trap thinking that a promotion from Triple-A will bring an automatic upgrade. Because Mercer doesn’t have a history of immediate success at a new level.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates beat the Astros 5-2. Game story here.

**Prospect Watch: Gerrit Cole throws six strong innings, and Robbie Grossman homers.

**Erik Bedard will be pushed back to Wednesday, and Brad Lincoln will take the start on Monday.

**Kristy Robinson takes a look at the power of the Pirates’ bullpen.

**More on how Jeff Larish fits with the club.




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