One of the myriad of Pittsburgh Pirates prospects that has been turning heads during the team’s Spring Training workouts has been infielder Gift Ngoepe.
The South African second-baseman/shortstop has shown great defensive flashes during the team’s Grapefruit League action. Ngoepe is a light-hitter, but has stuck around in the Pirates system by virtue of that stellar defense. This is not to say that Ngoepe is not a capable hitter. Between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis last season, Ngoepe slashed .253/.333/.352. He carried an 8.5 percent walk rate, but also struck out 26.2 percent of the time.
Ngoepe survived today’s first round of cuts, but will start the season at Indianapolis. Still, it’s only a matter of time before his defense forces the club to carry him on the 25-man roster.
Could that be at the expense of Jordy Mercer?
By most defensive measures, Mercer performs more than admirably. Mercer had the fourth-highest fielding percentage in all of baseball at the Shortstop position with a 98.6 rate. Many other defensive metrics see a similar ranking. Offensively, Mercer’s ceiling has probably already been realized.
Mercer’s batting line in 2014 is probably the best indicator of what to expect going forward. That year saw his first regular playing time from wire-to-wire, reaching the 500 plate appearance plateau for the first time. The light-hitting Mercer still found ways to contribute, as his 55 RBI and 27 doubles show.
2015 ended up being a moribund year for Mercer. Unquestionably, he got off to the worst start of any Pirates regular, suffering through an abysmal first two months of the season.
When viewed in that light, it’s admirable that Mercer was able to end up with the slash line that he had.
For Mercer to solidify his grasp on the shortstop position and hold off competition from Ngoepe and others, he may need to show more offense. That may not necessarily take the form of a higher batting average or more RBI production, but rather by falling in line with the team’s new “on-base” approach. Presumably slated to spend most of his time in the 8th spot in the batting order, Mercer would do well to grind out at-bats, elevate the opposing pitcher’s pitch counts, and, yes, get on base.
In doing so, he can show the Pirates that paying a premium for his services over other in-house options would be a wise move.