Do the Pirates have their shortstop of the future? And thoughts on expanded rosters and AJ Burnett


PNC PARK – I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest Billy Hamilton’s slide home last night was the most heart-breaking such action for the city of Pittsburgh since Sid slid back in October of 1992.




The speedy Hamilton scored from second on an infield single in the ninth, allowing the Reds to complete a three-run comeback despite having trailed 5-2 in the  ninth and been down to their final out.


As I wrote in the game story from last night, Pirates’ defense has played a significant part in their 2013 success. But if the Pirates fail to advance to the postseason, even if they fall a game short of a division title or home-field advantage in a wild-card play-in game, it will not be the radical shifts and aggressive approach to run prevention that will be remembered. It will be Jordy Mercer‘s error that began a chain of events that led to the epic, one-game collapse.


Clint Hurdle was ejected in the 8th but he said he would not have inserted Clint Barmes, a superior defender, into the game in the ninth. He said Mercer has closed out plenty of games this season.


Mercer said he’s made that play 100 times before and Mark Melancon said Mercer makes that play 99 times out of 100 chances.


(And credit Mercer and Melancon for talking to reporters in a mostly empty clubhouse after a soul-crushing defeat. Mercer took responsibility. Mercer has accounted for himself well on-the-field and off as a rookie in the middle of a pennant chase.)


Yes, you can question whether Barmes should have replaced him late in innings, but many wanted Mercer to become the everyday shortstop. And Mercer has improved his defense. Hurdle has said his defensive tools are similar to Barmes’. He said neither player has elite quickness and lateral range which means like Barmes, Mercer must become a master of angles. And he has become better.


Mercer has a future as a Pirate. He’s young. He’s relatively cheap. He can crush left-handed pitching and play a number of infield positions. I think he could become a super-sub type of player, like a Ben Zobrist with fewer walks.


But should he be an everyday shortstop?


Raising such a question is NOT a slight. Very few humans have skills to be an above-average MLB shortstop. Barmes has proven a player without elite physical tools can become above-average defensively. And I’m not raising the question because of one error, I’ve raised it before. The Pirates cannot do much more to improve their defensive play. They’ve almost maxed out shifts and groundball rates. The only way to improve their defense is to add more elite defenders. The best way to improve a defense is to find elite up-the-middle defenders. They have two in Andrew McCutchen and Russell Martin. But there is no elite shortstop in the system.


Keep in mind, Barmes is a free agent after the season. So should finding a shortstop become a free agency or draft priority going forward? Can Mercer grow into the role? Can Alen Hanson improve?





And Hamilton is only fueling Hurdle’s disgust of expanded rosters


Hamilton has all of 10 plate appearances as a September call-up. He has 10 steals, scored two game-winning runs and scored one game-tying run.


How about that for September impact?


The September call-up rule is an antiquated one. Imagine if the NFL expanded to 100 players in December? It doesn’t make sense to change the nature of roster composition in the season’s most important month.


But I have to believe the Reds would have added a weapon like Hamilton even if they only had the benefit of a 25-man roster. His speed is an impact weapon like we have’t seen since Rickey Henderson. It’s fun (if not painful for NL Central opponents) to watch.




AJ Burnett told our Karen Price that he’s 50-50 on treturning or retiring after the season, he indicated if he returns it would be as a Pirate, though some team might be willing to make a lucrative, multi-year offer.


I can’t seen the Pirates making Burnett a multi-year offer. But I think it makes sense to make a qualifying offer to Burnett, which would be one-year and about $14 million. If Burnett signs elsewhere the Pirates would receive draft pick compensation. If he retires he retires,  and if he signs the one-year offer the Pirates add starting pitching depth which they need with questions hovering over Jeff Locke and Wandy Rodriguez 


If Burnett retires the rotation would shape up like this on opening day:


1. Liriano


2. Cole


3. Morton


4. Rodriguez?


5. Locke/Gomez/Cumpton/Pimentel/Free Agent TBA?


Taillon will be up by June. And I have to think if Burnett retires the Pirates will pursue another FA option.


– TS