Pirates' Mercer excited to become team's everyday shortstop

Rob Biertempfel
| Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, 7:00 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — For a while last year, the season played out better than Jordy Mercer had ever dreamed.

In the thick of a division title chase, Mercer became the Pirates' everyday shortstop. He got into the flow of playing regularly and was doing well at the plate, too.

“It was all better than I'd expected,” Mercer said.

Then, on a Friday night in late September, things went a bit awry.

With two outs in the ninth inning, with the Pirates holding a three-run lead against the Cincinnati Reds, Todd Frazier hit a three-hopper to the left side. Mercer got a good look at the ball coming off the bat, charged and grabbed it on the short hop.

Mercer threw on the run and the ball sailed into the stands. The error opened the door for a three-run rally, and the Reds won the game in the 10th inning.

“My dad always told me that when things are going too well for you, something's going to give,” Mercer said Thursday. “For me, that was that moment. How you pick yourself up and learn from it defines who you are. Anytime you have to go through some adversity, it makes you stronger.”

Over the final couple weeks of the season, Clint Barmes got more playing time at short than Mercer. The stakes were high, and manager Clint Hurdle's faith in him had been shaken. Yet, Mercer did not allow the blunder to derail his season or his career.

When spring training camp opened last week, Mercer was among the first position players to arrive. He has regained his manager's trust and an everyday job.

“Mercer has moved forward and will get every opportunity to play shortstop,” Hurdle said. “Barmes will work as a utility middle infielder.”

This spring marks the official transition that began last summer.

Mercer and Barmes have traded roles.

“Working with Jordy has been great,” Barmes said. “There's never been a feeling of ‘I've got your job, you've got my job' or anything. He's definitely earned every opportunity that's he's gotten.”

An 11-year veteran, Barmes is a superior defensive player. Over the past three seasons, his 39 defensive runs saved is the third-best in the majors.

“As long as I've been in the game, I've heard that pitching and defense wins games,” Barmes said. “I'm a big believer in that.”

Still, the extra pop in Mercer's bat has value to the Pirates, who have a relatively low-octane offense. Over the past two seasons, Barmes batted .221 with a .579 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Mercer still has room to grow at the plate, especially against right-handed pitchers. Last year, he hit .410 with a 1.152 OPS against lefties and .247 with a .654 OPS against right-handers.

“I think I'm getting more comfortable,” Mercer said. “Every year is a stepping stone for me. I've still got a lot to learn, and I can learn it from these guys around me.”

That's where Barmes can help. He re-signed with the Pirates for $2 million this season, which is less than half of what he made in each of the previous two years. And Barmes came in knowing he'll be mentoring his replacement.

“I'm excited to see how this season goes, and I'm ready to help out in whatever's asked of me in my role,” Barmes said.

When Barmes reported to camp a few days ago, Mercer greeted him in the clubhouse with a hug.

“I'm so glad he's back,” Mercer said. “It just makes my life so much easier, having somebody that I can go talk to or ask questions to and learn from. He's been there and done it, so I'm just trying to learn all I can from him.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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