Pirates shortstop Mercer easing into veteran’s role

In this Wednesday, March 8, 2017, file photo, Pittsburgh Pirates' Jordy Mercer watches his RBI double against the Dominican Republic during the second inning of an exhibition baseball game in Bradenton, Fla. (AP)

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — When Jordy Mercer looks around the Pirates’ clubhouse, the term he instinctively goes to in referring to his teammates isn’t the one he’d always used.

“These kids,” Mercer said while scanning the room early one morning last week at LECOM Park, “there’s some quality kids coming through here right now. It’s awesome to see that— we have an unbelievable group of kids right now.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Mercer was “the kid” in the Pirates’ clubhouse. Now, at 30 and entering his sixth season in the major leagues, the shortstop has become “the veteran” among the Pirates infielders.

“He’s the leader in the infield, no doubt,” said the Pirates infield instructor and third base coach, Joey Cora. “He takes charge. You always want a guy like him in your infield. It helps you a lot.”

For much of this month, Mercer has been serving as “the guy” among virtually all of the team’s position players — if for no other reason that he’s something of the last man standing. Five of the eight lineup regulars are taking part in the World Baseball Classic and another — third baseman Jung Ho Kang — remains stuck in South Korea because of visa issues relating to his DUI arrest this past winter.

That’s left Mercer as the lone position player assured of starting who’s been with the Pirates over about a two-week period this spring.

But even when all proverbial hands are on deck, Mercer has established himself as one of the Pirates’ bedrocks. He started 142 of Pittsburgh’s 162 games last season, a career high. Since he first took over as the starting shortstop in 2013, Mercer has already cycled through two each regular second basemen and third basemen and a different primary first baseman in each of the five seasons.

Among the Pirates’ regular starting eight and starting rotation, only outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte have had longer tenures with the team than Mercer.

“It’s cool that you’ve been in this game long enough to be able to be called somewhat of a veteran,” Mercer said. “That’s not an insult; that’s a pretty cool accomplishment.”

Including all time spent with the organization since being drafted or signed, Mercer trails only McCutchen, Marte and relievers Jared Hughes and Tony Watson in tenure. A third-round pick out of Oklahoma State in the 2008 draft, Mercer takes pride in being a quiet part of the core that reversed the losing in Pittsburgh.

The Pirates had a 20-year streak of losing season — a record for any major North American professional sports team — snapped in 2013. That began a string of three consecutive playoff berths Mercer was a part of.

“It’s pretty cool to be a part of that group that kind of turned this whole thing around and basically brought winning back,” Mercer said. “And tradition and the history. Now teams are somewhat scared of playing us instead of cupcaking us like they used to.”

Those days are gone for the Pirates, although they did fall back to 78-83 last season and sat out the postseason when Mercer hit .256 with 11 home runs with career highs in RBIs (59), walks (51) and runs (61).

He also ranked third among National League shortstops in fielding percentage and range factor, and was second in the NL in double plays turned.

“He does everything under control,” said Cora, who spent 12 seasons in the majors as a middle infielder. “He makes all the plays that you need him to make – and every once in a while he will surprise you with a great play. But the plays that need to be made, he makes them.

“He’s steady. He’s our Steady Eddie.”