The 2019 Detroit Tigers season brings a variety of new faces to the table. Among these is Jordy Mercer, the team’s first new shortstop (intentionally, at least) in nearly five seasons.
After declining to bring back glove virtuoso Jose Iglesias, the Tigers entered the offseason looking for someone to carry the infield captain’s flag going forward. After reportedly mulling over a list of suitors including Adeiny Hechavarria, Freddy Galvis, and Alcides Escobar, the Tigers settled on Mercer.
Having spent his entire career to this point with the Pittsburgh Pirates and coming off of a season in which a couple of injuries limited him to 117 games, 2019 will be Mercer’s first season in the American League.
The big question: Will he be an improvement?
After seeing free agency slow to an arduous slog, it’s been long concluded that the Tigers acted early in signing Mercer, paying him $5.25 million for a one-year deal.
Maybe too early. Of the aforementioned suitors, only Galvis received a major league deal, signing a one-year, $4 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. All of the others, including Iglesias, signed minor league deals. The Tigers potentially could have had most any other shortstop on the free agent market, perhaps even Iglesias, for a similar dollar amount. Which begs the question: will Mercer be much of an upgrade over the man he’s replacing?
The answer: yes and no.
Defensively, Iglesias holds an advantage on Mercer. A simple eye test over the years saw Iglesias covering plentiful ground on the infield, making plays with a lightning-fast glove and soft hands. There was Gold Glove buzz surrounding him for many of his seasons in Detroit, including a sterling 2016 season where he was viewed as something of a snub for the award.
Contrarily, Mercer rates as an average to below-average defender, posting a career defensive runs saved (DRS) rating of -11 in 6,380 2⁄3 innings at shortstop. His -9 DRS in 2018 matches a career low. His career -10 ultimate zone rating (UZR, -2.2 UZR/150) doesn’t exactly shine. One thing that will aid Mercer, however, is the Tigers’ late addition of Josh Harrison, Mercer’s long-time double play partner with the Pirates who will provide an air of familiarity and spark some chemistry as the two work with an infield that is otherwise new to them.
Offensively, Mercer could be a perfectly adequate hitter. He has more home run power in his bat than Iglesias, regularly eclipsing the double-digit mark. Over the last three seasons Mercer has posted a batting average of .254 with weight on-base averages (wOBA) on-base percentages of .303 and .323, respectively. His walk rate over the span averages out to about 8.4 percent.
The potential for Mercer to be a better lineup presence than his predecessor is clearly there, but there’s no guarantee. There are similarities to his approach at the plate. His strikeout numbers, while higher than usual in 2018, aren’t off-putting but are higher than any mark Iglesias ever posted. Mercer has drawn walks at a better rate than Iglesias in each of the last four seasons, but that’s not saying a lot given the latter’s career-high walk rate came in 2016 a lowly 5.5 percent. A deeper dig shows lower offensive value, with weighted runs created numbers (wRC+) regularly sitting in the ranges of 80-90. He has never figured as a significant WAR factor, with a career-high 2.0 WAR coming way back in 2014.
Long story short: it probably all evens out in the end.
What else will he bring?
While Mercer is defensively behind and offensively on par with Iglesias, he will provide a veteran’s presence and guidance for a rebuilding team that has gotten younger and could see its first wave of prospects arriving by the late stages of the season. If you’re feeling really optimistic, it’s possible that he absolutely defies any expectations and endears himself as a trade chip at the July deadline.
And, if all else fails, Tigers fans will at least have a front row seat to see one of baseball’s best bromances.