clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The fallout of the Jordy Mercer injury

New, 68 comments
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the All-Star break, Kumbaya-vibes were at a season high among the Pittsburgh faithful. Having just completed a magical series against the Cardinals, everything was right in the world.

A week later, our fortunes have reversed.

The Pirates opened the season's second half by suffering a demoralizing sweep at the hands of the lowly, hated Brewers. Nor does that represent the entirety of their woes. Jordy Mercer is out for six weeks, which means we're in the early stages of the Brent Morel Experience. Implications for both the starting third base and bench situations are dire.

Mercer's absolute value is a point of contention between our own Brian Cartwright (whose metrics suggest Mercer is one of the best defenders in the game and, therefore, quite a useful dude) and the good folks at FanGraphs. They use metrics like UZR and DRS, which tend to rate Mercer more as above-average than excellent. Brian could, I'm sure, elaborate more eloquently on the differences, but I'm not going to put words in his mouth. The only thing I'll say is that to my knowledge, neither UZR nor DRS account for plays on which the defense is shifted, which is a pretty significant flaw when it comes to evaluating infielders on a team like the Pirates.

This is important, because while models like ZiPS and Steamer currently project Mercer for 0.7 and 0.5 WAR, respectively, over the rest of the season (in a hypothetical healthy-Mercer world), Brian's defensive metrics would seem to indicate that Mercer's value could be significantly greater than that. And, of course, Mercer's absolute value isn't really the point--his relative value is far more important given the Pirates' lack of a serviceable replacement.

And his relative value is astronomical. Because with both Mercer and Josh Harrison out, Jung-Ho Kang is now the only major league quality 3B/SS in the organization. Mercer's playing time will be allocated to the uninspiring Brent Morel/Sean Rodriguez duo, who should provide solid defense and very, very little offense (as of yesterday, Rodriguez was hitting .201/.229/.309).

Some have suggested that the better move for the Pirates may have been to move defensive specialist Pedro Florimon into the lineup instead of Morel/Rodriguez, thus maintaining a strong infield defense and allowing Kang to stay at third. I tend to agree, but I think it ultimately misses the point--whether we're starting Pedro Florimon or Brent Morel, we should expect roughly replacement-level performance.

The Pirates could also promote second base prospect Alen Hanson, who's having a fine season (.286/.332/.421, 25 steals) in AAA as a 22 year old. It's tempting to be frustrated with the front office's insistence on using low-upside veterans like Morel ahead of prospects like Hanson, but I don't think they've done anything wrong here. Unless the organization is comfortable moving Neil Walker to third base or letting Hanson learn on the job (he's not an MLB-ready defensive shortstop), the defensive fit just isn't there. Maybe they give Hanson some third base reps and promote him later in the season, but it's tough to fault them for keeping him in AAA in the short-term.

The upshot is that none of the Pirates' Mercer-replacement options are acceptable for a contending team. Generally, when a commentator says that a team needs to make a move, I'm inclined towards skepticism. The difference between a half-season of two players is rarely as large as our perception might indicate (unless we're talking Andrew McCutchen and Michael Martinez). But in this case, the difference between Mercer and Rodriguez/Morel/whoever else we use might actually be on the order of a full win. And the Pirates are at the very apex of the win curve, when the value of a marginal win to them should be well above $8 million.

That's not to say that we should give up significant value to re-acquire Clint Barmes, but it does suggest that some of the rumored trade targets I've seen (Justin Upton, Ben Revere, Dan Haren) don't appear to make much sense. If we're going to part with assets to improve our team in the short-term, it should absolutely be at first base, third base, or shortstop. Because basic competence at first base and whichever of third base and shortstop isn't being manned by Jung-Ho Kang would improve our team roughly as much as acquiring an All-Star outfielder or starting pitcher.

covered the Pirates' first base trade options last month, and nothing much has changed since then. I still think any one of Adam Lind, Steve Pearce, and Mike Napoli could improve our team in the short-term. But following Mercer's injury, it appears we're also in the market for an upgrade at third base or shortstop.

Charlie's recent article highlighted a few interesting options: Ben Zobrist, Clint Barmes, and Cliff Pennington. I think Aramis Ramirez, Martin Prado, and Juan Uribe are three more names we should watch--they all play for non-contenders, they're all rentals (though Prado would also be around for 2016), and they're all significantly better than our existing options.

The table below summarizes the rest-of-season ZiPS projections for all of these guys:


I don't think we should put much stock in the defensive component of the projections (which, upon cursory inspection, appears to be underrating Barmes and Pennington), but it's still pretty clear that at least Zobrist, Ramirez, Prado, and Uribe would add significant value to our team. More than the upgrade from Polanco to Upton, in fact.

I'm a bit skeptical of Ramirez's continued viability as a power hitter--his FB/LD batted ball velocity is below 90 MPH this year, and given his age it's fair to wonder how much he has left in the tank. Prado, Zobrist, and Uribe, however, would all represent fairly low-risk acquisitions.

The question, of course, is cost. Zobrist is poised to be one of the most sought-after players on the market, as his versatility and productiveness would make him a fit on virtually any contender. This would seem to make him a very valuable commodity, and it doesn't fit the Pirates' M.O. to part with the quality and volume of assets that would be necessary to acquire him. I think Zobrist's cost will be prohibitively high.

Prado would be a strong addition because he's capable of playing multiple positions, a steady 2+ WAR caliber player, and signed to an affordable deal that runs through the end of next season. He would allow us to rest Walker (or even move him over to first base). Basically, he's a very, very similar player, production-wise, to Josh Harrison, although their methods are different (Prado is among the patient hitters in the game; Harrison among the most aggressive). For the same reasons as Zobrist, however, Prado is likely to be pricey. The Marlins surrendered Nathan Eovaldi to acquire him last offseason, and if they think they'll be a contender next year they don't have much incentive to deal Prado away.

To me, the guy who makes the most sense is Juan Uribe. I was shocked when, earlier this season, the Dodgers virtually gifted Uribe to the Braves. I've heard speculation that the trade was partially an accommodation to allow Uribe (a popular figure in the Dodgers' clubhouse) to continue to start after the emergence of Justin Turner, but that seems like strange reason to move a player who'd been worth 8.6 WAR over the previous two years. Uribe is an excellent defensive third baseman, and his bat is showing no signs of premature decay.

He's 36, so it's not as if there's a long-term fit here, but his age, in this case, could work in the Pirates' favor--Uribe almost certainly isn't part of the Braves' long-term plans. And as a third base-only player, there will be fewer suitors than for a multipositional guy like Zobrist or Prado. I haven't seen any buzz about Uribe to the Pirates being a remote possibility, but it would seem to be an ideal fit.

For now, here's to hoping that Pedro Florimon can do his best Clint Barmes impression for the next few weeks.