The Pittsburgh Pirates’ offense has been bad this season. For as good as the pitching has been for the team, the offense hasn’t lived up to expectations. Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison started off slow, but both players managed to recover. Starling Marte is prone to hot and cold streaks but has seemed to find his groove in the second spot in the lineup as of late. Gregory Polanco barely has more than one full major league season of at-bats under his belt, and will be given time to adjust in right field. Harrison was given a contract extension as a third baseman, not as an expensive utility player. And while the futures of Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez seem uncertain, they have the right side of the infield locked down for at least the rest of this season. So, what spot in the lineup does that leave the Pirates with room to improve?
At the end of last season, Jordy Mercer could say that he had the shortstop position locked up. After all, he batted .267 in June, .319 in July, and .284 in August. He finished the season strong and there was hope for him becoming the future at shortstop for the Pirates. But then 2015 came, and Jordy struggled. He batted .197 in April, but unlike McCutchen and Harrison, Mercer hasn’t rebounded. He regressed in May, batting .188 and didn’t have a single home run through the first two months of the season. Currently, Mercer is slashing .215/.267/.288 with an OPS of .555. That’s not adequate production from an every day player, even from the shortstop position.
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It’s no longer early in the season, and even though he played well for half a season in 2014, he still finished with a .255 average and a .305 OBP. Those aren’t great numbers, even if he was a good all-around shortstop. Jordy now has former KBO star Jung Ho Kang breathing down his neck and taking more and more playing time from him, as well as Alen Hanson waiting in the minors. This begs the question: what does the future hold at shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates? Who will be the team’s shortstop in 2016?
The case for Jordy Mercer
Mercer is a career .255/.306/.384 hitter. He’s been a positive win player since he came into the league, posting a 0.3 WAR over 62 at-bats in 2012, and putting up WARs of 2.0 and a 2.8 respectively in 2013 and 2014. He also adds decent power from the shortstop position, hitting eight home runs in 2013 and 12 in 2014. Mercer didn’t become the everyday shortstop for the Pirates until last season after taking over for Clint Barmes midway through 2013, and he’s in his prime at the age of 28.
However, this season he ranks only ahead of Jimmy Rollins and Starlin Castro in terms of WAR from the shortstop position in the National League. The Pirates’ offense as a whole has been struggling this season, but there aren’t many positions on the field that aren’t locked down. Shortstop is one of them, and it’s a position the team isn’t getting production from. The trade deadline is looming, and with two shortstops waiting in the midst, Jordy could be a trade chip with some value left if the team wants to bring in a veteran, more productive shortstop as it pushes for the playoffs.
The case for Jung Ho Kang
Jung Ho Kang was brought over from the Korean Baseball Organization for his offense, and that’s what the Pirates have received from him so far this season. Kang’s slashing .273/.349/.400 with four home runs and 25 RBIs. He’s also been worth 1.5 wins above replacement this season, which would place him in a tie for sixth among shortstops in the National League.
But what Kang brings to the table offensively, he often lacks defensively. Mercer is seen as the better defender at short, and didn’t make a single throwing error during the 2014 season. Kang has less range but has made numerous slick plays in the field this season. Kang is also more versatile, having played at both shortstop and third base this year.
The case for Alen Hanson
Alen Hanson is a curious case for the Pirates. On the one hand, he’s played the majority of his minor league career at the shortstop position. On the other hand, the team decided to move Hanson to second base towards the end of last season. This move was most likely made because Hanson’s defense had always been suspect at short and his strong offensive skills would play better at second, where defense is less of a priority.
Hanson has a career .289/.348/.454 line in the minors. That’s great hitting for a shortstop prospect. If the Pirates decide to re-sign Neil Walker as its second baseman of the future (which is probably a long shot at this point), Hanson would then be in the competition for the shortstop job. And if Mercer doesn’t recover this season, that could speed up Hanson’s shot at the majors. Kang and Hanson could play either second or shortstop, depending on whose defense plays better at each position.
Hanson should seen time in the majors at some point in 2015. He’s currently in Triple-A, where he’s hitting .285 with four home runs and 32 RBIs. His bat should be good enough for the majors. It’s just a matter of if he is better suited for second base or shortstop.
So, the Pittsburgh Pirates have three legitimate options for their shortstop of the future: Jordy Mercer, Jung Ho Kang, and Alen Hanson. There is a case to be made for each one. If I’m a betting man, I’d bet on Mercer at shortstop, Kang at second base, and Hanson on another team to start 2016. And if Neil Walker isn’t brought back, two of the three of these players will secure the Pirate infield for years to come. Hanson could always be used as a trade chip, but Kang wasn’t brought in on an $11 million deal to be a utility player. If Mercer ends up with a terrible 2015 at the plate, his future at shortstop in Pittsburgh could be an uncertain one.