Lakeland, Fla. — Jordy Mercer’s travel bag and bats were all packed and loaded onto the bus Saturday morning as he sat scrolling around on his phone in front of his locker. If this was last season he would have had the option of skipping the trip to Tampa. He could have stayed back with the rest of the regulars, got some work on the back fields in the morning and taken the rest of the day off.
He could have shot playful jabs at the others who had to bus to Tampa for the pleasure of facing the Yankees' newly-minted, $324 million ace Gerrit Cole.
Not this year. Mercer is in camp as a non-roster invitee, trying to win a utility role with the Tigers. He’ll be taking most of the trips, especially while starting shortstop Niko Goodrum continues to nurse a sore groin.
Mercer got on that bus Saturday and played the first few innings of the Tigers’ 8-2 loss to the Yankees. He even collected one of the two hits Cole allowed in his 2 2/3 innings
Such is the cycle of life in the big leagues.
“The game is getting younger and we’re getting older,” Mercer said. “For me, I think this is coming at the perfect time.”
Truth be told, Mercer saw this phase of his career coming two years ago, in his last year with the Pirates. He had battled injuries and when he got back, the Pirates had moved on to their “shortstop of the future,” Kevin Newman.
The Tigers gave him a reprieve last year, signing him for one year at $5.25 million to be their starting shortstop. But, again, injuries shortened his season and even though he finished strong — .336/.367/.533 with a .900 OPS in his last 35 games — no big-league offers were forthcoming this winter.
So it’s on to the next and final incarnation of his playing career — utility infielder.
“I’m enjoying it,” he said. “I’m enjoying moving around playing different positions. I think it gives me a chance to extend my career as it moves forward. You see guys all the time who played one position for a long time and then switch over and play for three or four more years.
“That’s the path I’m trying to take.”
Adding a roster spot this season works into his plan, for sure. And as things stand now, Mercer — along with Harold Castro — looks like a good bet to be one of the two utility players the Tigers keep.
Matthew Boyd made his second start of the spring and looked sharp, throwing three scoreless innings against a Yankees’ split-squad lineup that included D.J. LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez and Miguel Andujar. Boyd allowed a hit and a walk and struck out four.
… It didn’t go as well for right-hander Kyle Funkhouser, who only recorded one out and gave up five runs including a three-run homer by Torres in the fifth inning.
… The Yankees scored three times off lefty Gregory Soto in the sixth. David McKay, Bryan Garcia and the Tigers’ No. 2-rated prospect Matt Manning each pitched a scoreless inning. Manning gave up a single and a ground-rule double but worked out of trouble.
… Center fielder JaCoby Jones remains shut down with right calf tightness. He isn’t expected to play Sunday or Monday.