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Mercer takes unusual route to Opening Day MLB shortstop

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer leaps over the Phillies' Maikel Franco while turning a doube play Sunday, March 16, 2014, at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer leaps over the Phillies' Maikel Franco while turning a doube play Sunday, March 16, 2014, at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer tags out Twins center fielder Alex Presley at second base on a stolen base attempt Friday, March 7, 2014, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer tags out Twins center fielder Alex Presley at second base on a stolen base attempt Friday, March 7, 2014, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.

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Tightening up

Mercer's minor league error totals by season:

Year Errors

2009 21

2010 15

2011 11

2012 8

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Friday, March 28, 2014, 11:51 p.m.
 

PHILADELPHIA — At midseason in Single-A Lynchburg in 2009, Jordy Mercer was summoned to the manager's office. The door closed. He was told he would be switching positions.

The first question raised about any amateur player signed as a shortstop is this: “Can he remain at the position?” The position is the most athletically demanding in the game. Most players eventually move. Mercer was moving to third base.

“They told me they were going to bring Chase (d'Arnaud) up. He was going to start playing short,” Mercer recalled. “They were going to move me around the infield. … I was shocked. You never want to hear that news. I played shortstop my whole life.”

Mercer did not have a high-profile pedigree. He was a third-round pick in the 2008 draft out of Oklahoma State. He was not a seven-figure bonus signee. In his first 160 professional games at shortstop, he made 29 errors. Scouts and coaches questioned whether the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder was too big for the position. His first-step quickness was doubted.

But a funny thing happened. Mercer made his way back to shortstop and played it at the game's highest level last season, displacing Clint Barmes. Mercer will open the regular season as the Pirates' starting shortstop against the Chicago Cubs at 1:05 p.m. Monday at PNC Park, his first Opening Day in the majors. Mercer's story is interesting because most players move down the defensive spectrum at the professional level, not advance up it.

“Not a lot of guys get to (stay at short). I know that,” Mercer said. “I just had a competitive edge. … I became quicker and stronger. … You want to show them, ‘Yeah, I can do this.' ”

Mercer became a better defender. He has worked with the same personal trainee the last four offseasons improving his strength, quickness and agility. He reduced his minor league error total every year since 2009.

Another funny thing occurred that helped Mercer stick at the position at the major league level: The man he replaced last June, the veteran Barmes, shared his knowledge with the rookie.

Like Mercer, Barmes is not the typical athlete you find at shortstop. He doesn't have the strongest arm or quickest foot speed. Barmes became one of the top defensive shortstops, according to defensive metrics, by mastering angles — taking more direct paths to groundballs — and aggressive positioning.

“I put myself in that position. ... So instead of getting upset, I went about my business the same as if I was in the starter,” Barmes said. “I do know working together and just talking about positioning and the way we attack groundballs and footwork … there are things he would pick up.”

Said Mercer: “There are different things I've added to my game: angles on balls that aren't hit as hard up the middle or on the backhand (side), positioning certain hitters in certain ways. ... Little keys that you don't really pick up when you come through the minor leagues, but when you get an older guy that's been there and he's kind of showed it to you and broken it down for you, it made the transition a lot easier.”

According to defensive runs saved, Barmes (12 runs saved in 2013) remains a better defensive player than Mercer (-1.5 runs saved). But Mercer's more potent bat combined with improved defense has allowed him an unusual path to membership in an elite group: an Opening Day major league shortstop.

“It's a pretty cool feeling how when that happened in A-ball and there was a few guys that played (shortstop) over me … yet I still came to play shortstop,” Mercer said. “It's a cool feeling that I ended up here.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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