The Pittsburgh Pirates may finally have a shortstop for the foreseeable future. The team hasn’t had a solid shortstop since they traded away Jack Wilson in 2009, with Wilson nearing the end of his career. They went with Ronny Cedeno, then defensive specialist Clint Barmes, before giving Jordy Mercer a shot in 2013.
Mercer did well in his time at the position last year, but not good enough to look like more than a stopgap option at the position. He showed improvements in 2014, and could have locked down the position for the next several years.
The biggest improvements from Mercer came with his defense. He finished with 9 Defensive Runs Saved, which ranked fifth among 22 qualified shortstops. His 0.5 UZR/150 was around middle of the pack, but an improvement on his -9.4 UZR/150 in 2013. The 2013 season also saw him put up a -2 DRS, so his improvements in 2014 represented an extra win.
Offensively, Mercer struggled to start the season. He posted a .199/.234/.274 line during the first two months of the season. Mercer had improved defense during that time, but as someone who was always advertised as an offense-first shortstop, it was alarming that the offense disappeared.
From the start of June to the end of the season, Mercer posted a .278/.333/.433 line, which was very similar to his .285/.336/.435 line in 2013. His OPS in the second half of the season ranked 4th out of 22 qualified shortstops. That, plus the improved defense, made Mercer the sixth most valuable shortstop in the second half of the season.
In previous years, talk of the future would have included prospects. But now the Pirates might be moving beyond that and sticking with Mercer. You could question whether Mercer’s 2014 numbers were legit. I don’t think the offensive numbers in the second half should be doubted, since that’s what he did in 2013. The defense could be doubted, although Mercer chalks that up to added experience at the position, plus work with Clint Barmes. So the defensive improvements make sense.
It seems that the Pirates are trusting the numbers. This year they moved their best shortstop prospect in the upper levels, Alen Hanson, over to second base. This move was made due to the fact that Hanson was struggling defensively at shortstop, and to get his bat to the majors quicker. If there was any perceived need for a shortstop, the Pirates wouldn’t have made this move. They would have stuck with Hanson to see if he could fix his issues at the position. The move to second base is a signal that the Pirates consider Mercer their shortstop. The fact that he’s under team control through the 2018 season means that the Pirates won’t need a shortstop anytime soon.
The current options in the minor leagues include Hanson, who is more likely to take over at second base in the short-term, if he has a future as a starter. JaCoby Jones moved to the position this year, although his chances of sticking at shortstop in the long-term are still up in the air, and it seems more likely that he will work out better at second base.
In the very long-term, the Pirates drafted Cole Tucker in the first round this year. On a very aggressive promotion schedule, and a not-so-conservative timeline, Tucker could be up at the start of the 2019 season. However, a more conservative timeline has him making the majors in 2020 or later. Either way, the Pirates will probably need a stopgap to bridge the transition from Mercer to Tucker, and that’s even assuming Tucker makes it to the majors at all, which is a big assumption when you consider the failure rate of prospects from rookie ball to the majors.
For now, the Pirates are set with Mercer. They’ve got four more years to find their next shortstop, unless they extend Mercer. If that’s going to be an option, it would be best done this off-season, since they’d get the most savings buying in now. There would be a risk that Mercer’s defense isn’t as good as he showed in 2014, or that his offense would continue to be inconsistent. But the upside would be big if they could buy “low” on some of his free agent years by showing faith in his future right now.