Jordy Mercer ready for the challenge of Jung-ho Kang
By Jake Misener
Our general questioning of Jordy Mercer‘s inclusion on MLB Network’s list of top shortstops heading into 2015 is pretty well-documented by this point. That being said, he appears set to open the year as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting shortstop – that is, unless Korean rookie Jung-ho Kang can unseat him this spring.
It’s hard to envision Mercer falling out of the starting role for manager Clint Hurdle‘s club, but should Kang show that he can handle big league pitching this spring, it may be a more difficult decision than many – myself included – anticipate.
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Shortstop is one of the only spots that isn’t locked up for this year’s Pirates team, one that is coming off a second-consecutive postseason appearance. With hometown favorite Neil Walker at second base and Josh Harrison taking over at the hot corner after Pedro Alvarez‘s shift across the diamond, there are presently very few questions about the team’s roster.
According to Hurdle, Kang will spend the first few weeks of Spring Training working out and taking reps at shortstop, before shifting to third and second as camp wears on.
"“Once he’s built up some time and comfort at shortstop, we’ll move him to third,” Hurdle said. “If those both work well, we might move him to second. We’re just going to have communication with him and get him reps. We want to put our eyes on him, too, in our camp, at this level, with the speed of this game.”"
The numbers Mercer and Kang put up in their respective 2014 seasons are near-incomparable. While the latter’s numbers were notably better – including a league-leading 40 home runs – they also came in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), which is known for being a much more hitter-friendly league than Major League Baseball.
Last season in the KBO, Kang clubbed 40 long-balls in just 117 contests, while posting an eye-popping slash-line of .356/.459/.739 with the Nexen Heroes. A career .298/.383/.504 hitter, the 27-year-old discovered his power stroke over the past few seasons – which only added to his value this offseason.
Mercer, meanwhile, put up a respectable .255 clip at the plate, adding a career-high 12 home runs and 55 RBI. Adding 27 doubles, the 28-year-old infielder emerged as one of the premier offensive shortstops in the league – at a time when middle infielders have become less of an offensive threat in recent years.
Given Mercer’s progress over the past few seasons, it’s hard to believe he could lose the starting job to Kang this spring. What seems more likely is that the Korean standout breaks camp as a utility infielder for the Bucs, filling in as needed around the infield – namely at short, second and third when Walker, Mercer and Harrison need a day off.
This not only addresses the uncertainty that comes with inserting Kang into the starting lineup right off the bat, but will also allow the organization to ease him into the big leagues, the culture of the United States and the rigors of a 162-game season – all of which will likely be in the team’s best interest given they locked him up for the next four years.
With Walker nearing free agency, Kang may very well be groomed as his successor should the Pirates decide to not bring him back on a new deal. But, for now, the rookie is likely to challenge Mercer this spring, but seems destined for a bench role to open the season.