'A perfect fit:' Mercer provides Tigers competency, consistency, comfort

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Jordy Mercer

Detroit – Jordy Mercer, understandably, was anxious about entering free agency for the first time.

He is 32 and coming off a season in 2018 where he missed a big chunk of August with a calf injury and then ended up sharing the Pirates’ shortstop position with rookie Kevin Newman the rest of the year. He wasn’t exactly charging into the Hot Stove season with a ton of leverage.

On top of that, in the winter of 2017, he watched two of his buddies, former Pirates Tony Watson (Feb. 19) and Neil Walker (March 12) dangle and nearly rot on the free-agent vine well into spring training.

“Yeah, I was nervous,” Mercer said in a teleconference from his home in Oklahoma Tuesday. “With the way the market went last year, you just didn’t know what to expect. It’s just human nature to be nervous when you don’t know what to expect.

“You wonder if there will be any teams that like you. You wonder if they will see you as a starting player or utility player – you just don’t know. It weighs on you.”

Something Walker told him, though, gave him comfort.

“He said all it takes is one team, just one team to like you and be interested and ready to push the envelope,” Mercer said.

The Detroit Tigers were that team. They identified him as exactly the stop-gap, veteran shortstop they were looking for to buy another season for the development of prospects like Willi Castro and Sergio Alcantara, and to bring another solid leader into the clubhouse.

“They showed their interest right away,” said Mercer, who said the Tigers first reached out to him at the end of October. “They were one of the first clubs we talked to, so I knew they were interested. They didn’t back down. They just came after me.”

The Tigers last week signed Mercer for one year at $5.25 million, $1.5 million less than he made with the Pirates last season.

“Things picked up pretty quickly during the Winter Meetings last week,” Mercer said. “We talked Monday and Tuesday and things escalated really fast. They wanted to get something done and I wanted to get something done.

“There aren’t that many starting shortstop jobs out there and this seemed like a perfect fit.”

It’s not a glitzy signing, by any means. His career slash-line (.256/.316/.383) mirrors his yearly production over the last six seasons – no massive slumps or surges, just steady production.

And, unlike the shortstop he is replacing, Jose Iglesias, there is nothing flashy about his defensive game. Using data from Baseball Info Solutions, his range (3.83 to 3.96), total bases stolen defensively (minus-10 to plus-2) and defensive runs saved (minus-9 to plus-2) scored below Iglesias last season.

But he has one of the strongest arms at the position and ranked sixth among National League shortstops in fielding percentage last season. He is simply a positionally-sound shortstop.

He is more grit than glamour. For the Tigers, he represents competency, consistency and comfort. He is as close to a known commodity as you can find.

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“That’s what I’ve tried to be my whole career,” Mercer said. “Just be consistent. The numbers are, whatever. I think I’ve had three or four identical seasons, where I put up almost the same numbers. I try to play as many games as I can and I try to be consistent.

“No highs and no lows. Just try to take that middle path and be as consistent as possible.”

That, after managing and manipulating the various moods of Iglesias, will be a treasure for manager Ron Gardenhire.

“When the skipper runs me out every night, he knows what he’s getting,” Mercer said. “That’s the biggest thing, just having that comfort factor for a manager and even a GM. With this guy, we know what we’re going to get out of him. When the season is over, we know what kind of numbers he’s going to put up.

“He’s going to bring some stability to that middle infield, which is important. And now that I’ve been in the league a while, I can hopefully chime in on some clubhouse things and kind of keep that leadership going.”

Jordy Mercer

Two other factors that may serve Mercer well playing in the American League – the designated hitter and spacious Comerica Park.

More than half of Mercer’s plate appearances with the Pirates (1,631) came hitting eighth in the batting order. He is anxious to find out what it’s like to hit with actual big-league hitters behind him.

“I don’t know what that’s going to bring, if I am going to get better pitches to hit, or what,” he said. “I have no idea. But it’s a new opportunity for me. I know I am going to have to change my approach. I just know playing for seven years in the National League, getting a lot of my at-bats in the eight-hole with the pitcher hitting behind me, it makes it pretty tough at times.”

Mercer still managed to hit his usual .257 with a .329 on-base average hitting in the eighth spot. But he’s hit better in other spots in the lineup – over .300 hitting second, third, fourth or fifth, and .284 hitting ninth.  

Mercer is also a line-drive hitter, which should play well at Comerica Park.

“I know it plays big,” Mercer said. “There’s a lot of room, a lot of green grass. It’s similar to PNC Park (Pittsburgh). A lot of green grass in left-center field. I used that notch out there a lot. I am a line-drive guy, don’t really try to hit a lot of home runs.

“I hit a career-high in doubles last year (29). You hit a ball in left-center field and you can run for days. It should be the same in Detroit.”

As an Oklahoman, he will feel comfortable in the Tigers clubhouse. Gardenhire, Michael Fulmer, fellow shortstop Pete Kozma, all still live in Oklahoma. Mercer and Fulmer, in fact, go to the same church – Crossing Christian Church in Evans, Oklahoma.

“I am kind of closing the Pirates chapter of the yearbook and opening a new one with the Detroit Tigers,” Mercer said. “It’s something I am excited about. ... Those years in Pittsburgh were great. They gave me an opportunity to fulfill my dream and to live out my dream. And they housed my family for seven years. It’s been a fun ride.

“But this is a new opportunity. If you ask around, everybody looks for a new opportunity, new challenges to meet. It keeps you young and it keeps you fresh. I am really looking forward to this.”

Twitter @cmccosky