When Jordy Mercer returns from the disabled list later this season, the Pirates will have an interesting situation on their hands. Who will be the team’s starting shortstop down the stretch? On one hand, Mercer has been the starter for the past season and a half before he was injured, and has shown stretches of great offensive play and nearly flawless defense. On the other hand, Jung Ho Kang has emerged as an offensive force at short, and Jordy’s play this year hasn’t been up to par at the plate. Do either of them get relegated to the bench?
I’d argue that there is no way Hurdle can afford to take Kang’s bat out of the lineup with the way he’s been playing this season. He currently holds a .299/.372/.460 line with an OPS of .832 and has been worth 3.6 wins above replacement, according to ESPN. His power has really come on as of late, which is always an added benefit at the shortstop position. His splits aren’t bad at all, as he hits .278/.381/.500 against lefties and .304/.369/.451 against righties. He also hits .319/.401/.426 at home and .277/.340/.496 on the road. That’s above as balanced as you can expect from a starter in this league.
Thus, Kang’s bat is too important to an offense that has been in the middle of the pack for much of the season. His emergence as an offensive force has helped catapult the team’s offense towards the top of the National League. Mercer, on the other hand, has struggled mightily this year at the plate. He has a .242/.289/.315 line with only two home runs this season, after hitting 12 home runs last year. His splits against lefties and righties are about even, but he does much worse on the road than at home, batting .218/.274/.301 on the road and .264/.304/.329 at home. He had a great month of June and was having a good month of July before he went down, but his tendency to be streaky doesn’t help the team for much of the season. He has to display more consistency at the dish to continue being a regular in this league.
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So Kang’s bat is much better than Mercer’s, that much is clear. How about their defense? Many will say that Mercer’s defense should keep him on the field because defense is much more important than offense from the shortstop position. I’d argue otherwise, and it’s a twofold argument. First, Mercer’s defense really hasn’t been that much better than Kang’s this year. Mercer has seven errors this year at short, while Kang has five at short. Mercer has a DWAR of 0.4 this year at short, while Kang has a DWAR of 1.1 at short. Mercer does have a better fielding percentage at .981 compared to .962 for Kang, however. Both have the same range factor at 4.73, and Mercer has a slightly higher zone rating at 5.277 compared to 5.136 for Kang.
Yes, Mercer’s played a lot more games this season at short than Kang has. And defense is often a hard stat to measure. But outside of the eye test, the stats do show that these two have played similar ball defensively at shortstop this season. Kang hasn’t been horrible like some think he’s been, and Mercer hasn’t been great like he was last season. When I use the eye test to evaluate these two, I see that Mercer has the stronger glove, while Kang has the stronger arm. Kang’s defense will improve over time as he gets acclimated to shortstop in the majors and to the Pirates’ defensive system.
The other aspect of my argument is that defense shouldn’t and isn’t necessarily the most important factor at short. Take the best team in baseball, for example. The St. Louis Cardinals employ Jhonny Peralta at short, who has a DWAR of just 0.3 this season. The Cardinals certainly did not sign Peralta before the 2014 season because of his defense. He’s one of the best offensive shortstops in baseball, and he’s been tremendously valuable to a team that still currently holds the best record in baseball and is a model for other baseball organizations, especially the Pirates. And who do most people consider to be the best shortstop in all of baseball? That would be Troy Tulowitzki, who was acquired by the Blue Jays for his offense, not his defense.
But outside of the eye test, the stats do show that these two have played similar ball defensively at shortstop this season. Kang has been horrible like many think he’s been, and Mercer hasn’t been great like he was last season.
So defense shouldn’t hold Kang back from being a starter in this league, and Mercer certainly shouldn’t be given the edge because of his defense. But is there an alignment in the infield that can get both of these two players on the field? Mercer can only play shortstop, while Kang has played at short and third this season. Some would argue that he could also play second base and potentially a corner outfield spot if necessary, but I’m sure Hurdle won’t take any risks in that regard this season unless more injuries occur.
When Josh Harrison returns, the Pirates will have Harrison, Aramis Ramirez, Kang, Mercer, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez as starting infield options. Two of these players will have to be relegated to the bench. It won’t be Pedro Alvarez, as none of the others have played first base in their careers. And for those touting the Walker should play first argument, he won’t this season. Maybe in the future, but not this season. So now we have five players for three spots. My ideal infield alignment would be Ramirez at third, Kang at short, Walker at second, and Pedro at first, with Mercer being a late-game defensive replacement for Kang and Harrison returning to a super utility role. I think Hurdle, however, will go with Harrison at third, Kang at short, Walker at second, and Pedro at first, with Ramirez and Mercer coming off the bench.
I don’t think Mercer will be the starting shortstop in Pittsburgh in the 2015 season or the postseason. In terms of the future, it will be interesting to see what they do with Mercer. Both Kang and Mercer are under team control through the 2018 season, so their contracts won’t be an issue. Kang has shown he can play third base this season, so do the Pirates go with Kang/Mercer/Walker/Pedro across the diamond in 2016? Alen Hanson should also be ready at the beginning of next season, so does the team trade one of Walker/Pedro to make room for him? They could go Kang/Mercer/Hanson/Pedro or move Walker to first and go with Kang/Mercer/Hanson/Walker. But what about JHay, who has earned a starting spot? My guess for next season will be JHay/Kang/Hanson/?, as the team probably will be done with Pedro after this year and should highly consider trading Walker if an extension doesn’t get done. In any case, Mercer’s future is certainly in jeopardy, especially if the team sees Kang as a shortstop and wants to keep Harrison at short.