This offseason, Pirates Breakdown will look at how each Pittsburgh Pirates position will probably shape up for 2018 and into the near future. To kick things off, the series starts with shortstop, a position that will probably see some changes sooner rather than later.
Since 2012 when he made his debut, Jordy Mercer has been penciled in as the Pittsburgh Pirates starting shortstop. A steady if not spectacular hitter, Mercer has been a fairly solid fielder at one of the most demanding positions in the infield and last year was no exception.
Mercer clubbed 14 home runs last year, the third time in the last five years that he went deep at least 10 times. He slashed .255/.326/.406 which was remarkably close to what he did in 2016 (.256/.328/.374). Last year he posted his best walk percentage (9.1) and second lowest strikeout percentage (15.8). With a salary of $4.3 million last year, Mercer’s WAR of 1.4 shows that he produced a good return for the team in 2017.
However, Mercer is entering his third and final year of arbitration and almost assuredly his last year with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He is going to see a salary increase when his case goes to arbitration (if he does not agree to a deal prior to that date) and he’ll be 31 entering 2018, so the Pirates are not going to look to extend him. If the team is struggling at the deadline, they could easily flip him for prospects. Depending on the situation at the deadline, Mercer would at least bring back a similar package to what Tony Watson did last year.
At this point it is safe to pencil Mercer in as the team’s starting shortstop for all or most of 2018, depending on how things shake out before July 31st. Another reason the team might be inclined to move Mercer is that they have some very talented shortstops at the three highest levels of their minor league system.
Ranked as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ fifth and sixth best prospects, Cole Tucker and Kevin Newman are in line to battle for the starting job at shortstop in the next year or two. Tucker started the year with Bradenton before moving up to Altoona for 42 games last year. He slashed .275/.358/.408 with six home runs and 47 stolen bases in 110 games between the two levels.
However, Mercer is entering his third and final year of arbitration and almost assuredly his last year with Pittsburgh
Tucker’s promotion — which he certainly earned — was part of a trickle effect down the organization when the team decided to move Kevin Newman to Indianapolis. Newman’s line across the two levels was .267/.311/.363 and he hit just four home runs, all with Altoona. Of the two, Newman is a much stronger defender with his fielding percentage of .983 bettering Tucker’s .966 last season. It is a good problem for the Pirates to have as these two continue to progress through the organization.
Another player that received a promotion when Newman and Tucker moved up was Stephen Alemais who is the team’s 21st best prospect. Alemais started the season with the West Virginia Power finished with the Bradenton Marauders. He hit .317/.393/.406 once he was promoted to A+ along with a very impressive 14/14 BB/K. His .957 fielding percentage across three different levels last year probably puts him behind the other two top shortstop prospects in the organization, but he is certainly a player that could force the team’s hand again in a few years.
Even if Mercer finishes the season with the Pirates, Newman and Tucker are going to be the shortstops to keep an eye on for the next few years. Mercer could very well be operating in the same window that some of his veteran teammates are in as well, so success early on in 2018 will play a vital role in Mercer’s most likely final year with the team.
Shortstop is certainly a place of depth for the Pirates entering next season. Mercer can counted on to hit at least 10 home runs and do his part in the field. Three of the team’s 25 prospects are shortstops, with Tucker and Newman ranking fifth and sixth. While this most likely will be Mercer’s last season with Pittsburgh, the team has three very talented players ready for the call. That call will almost assuredly come for Newman at some point in 2018 with Tucker and Alemais most likely arriving in 2019 or 2020.