The Pittsburgh Pirates called up top hitting prospect Starling Marte on July 26th. Prior to his promotion in the majors, the club had struggled with their outfield alignment. Jose Tabata was demoted to the minors in early July after posting a .636 OPS. Alex Presley was falling out of favor with a .634 OPS on the year prior to Marte’s promotion. The club had Josh Harrison and Drew Sutton getting regular starts in the outfield. So they turned to Marte, and a few days later they traded for Travis Snider, hoping to give their outfield a boost.
The Pirates demoted Tabata, benched Alex Presley, designated Drew Sutton for assignment, and moved Josh Harrison back to the Super Utility role that fits him best. And none of those players were playing as poorly as Clint Barmes has been playing this year. So why is it that the Pirates would make all of those changes, call up their top hitting prospect, and trade their top reliever for a corner outfielder, but at the same time continue to give Barmes regular playing time, while giving Jordy Mercer very little playing time?
Mercer has started the last two games at shortstop. On Wednesday he hit his first homer of his career. He went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly today. On the season he has a .200/.242/.467 line in 30 at-bats. He’s the top shortstop prospect in the system, and as I pointed out, Barmes has been playing worse than any player, with most of the other struggling players losing playing time.
Barmes has been an excellent defender this year, which is important at shortstop. His 11.5 UZR/150 ranks third in all of baseball among qualified shortstops, falling only behind Brendan Ryan (26.6) and Starlin Castro (11.7). But his lack of offense, with a .539 OPS, negates that defensive value and makes him a replacement level player. According to FanGraphs, he has a 0.0 WAR this year, despite the strong defense. Last year he was a 3.1 WAR player with similar defense, and a .698 OPS. But that offense isn’t there this year. And even if you thought he could see a decline moving out of Houston, I don’t think anyone expected him to be this bad offensively.
Jordy Mercer has had a track record of struggling in his initial jump to each level. He had a .702 OPS in his first year in Double-A. He followed that up with an .816 OPS in his second year. Last year he had a .689 OPS in Triple-A. This year he had a .778 OPS, and was tearing the cover off the ball outside of April. Because of this trend, I could see him struggling if he’s given every day playing time. He also struggles against low and away breaking balls, which could be exposed in the majors.
I wouldn’t make Mercer the full-time starter. In that role, I think there’s a chance that he could put up numbers just as poor as Barmes, with Barmes having better defense. But I would give Mercer more playing time. Ease him in to the majors, Let him start three or four times every ten games. If he hits well, give him another start. If he continues hitting, increase his playing time. But it would be good to avoid him going ten days between starts, which is what happened between his start on July 29th and his start on Wednesday.
I understand that Barmes is making $5 M this year, and $5.5 M next year. That will probably make it harder to remove him from the lineup than a league minimum guy like Alex Presley. But that money is a sunk cost. The only thing that matters now is the won/loss record for the team. We’ve seen what Barmes can do. Maybe he can turn things around and put up offensive numbers that combined with his defense would make him a valuable player. But we’re beyond the point where giving Barmes more time to turn things around is the only option. The Pirates need to keep giving Mercer more time and give him the same chance as Barmes to put up strong numbers in the majors. From there, go with whatever shortstop is hitting better at the time.
Links and Notes
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**The Pirates lost 6-3 to the Diamondbacks.
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