Mercer's path to majors included longer, but necessary, stay in Altoona

BRADENTON, Fla. – Most of the key members of the Curve’s 2010 Eastern League championship team were promoted to Triple-A for 2011, but Jordy Mercer got left behind.

As his friends and teammates made the next move up the minor league ladder – guys like first baseman Matt Hague, shortstop Chase d’Arnaud and third baseman Josh Harrison – Mercer had to face returning to Altoona.

“Yeah, it was a disappointment to come back,” Mercer said Monday. “I had a little chip on my shoulder. I was a little pissed off, honestly, because you don’t want to do that. You want to continue to climb up the ladder and get to the big leagues.”

As it turns out, having to come back to Double-A for a second year might have been the best thing that happened in Mercer’s career.

And if you’re looking for proof that how quickly a player moves up in the minors doesn’t always matter much, there’s this bit of irony: Mercer was the last of the four outstanding Curve infielders from 2010 to reach Triple-A, but he’s the only one of the four who’s slated to be an everyday player in the majors this season. (Hague and d’Arnaud are in Triple-A, and Harrison is a bench player for the Pirates.)

Mercer will be the Bucs’ starting shortstop this season, a job he earned with an impressive showing last year. He hit .285 in a backup role to Clint Barmes and also supplied some power with eight homers and 27 RBIs in 103 games.

“The amount of playing time I got last year and the previous year before that, I think it kind of set me up for this,” Mercer said of his opportunity to play every day.

Barmes, a favorite of manager Clint Hurdle, still figures to get a lot of playing time, particularly in late-game situations because of his good defense. Mercer said he’s always considered defense to be his strongest suit, but so far he’s yet to prove himself to be as steady in the field as Barmes.

The 27-year-old Mercer readily acknowledges that his 2011 season with the Curve was “a big turning point in my career.” He had a productive season in 2010 to help Altoona win the EL title, hitting .282 with 65 RBIs and 31 doubles, but Mercer hit a surprisingly low three home runs.

He felt he had performed well enough in 2010 to warrant a promotion with the rest of his teammates, but the Pirates felt otherwise and sent him back to Altoona.

The Curve’s manager in 2011, P.J. Forbes, also had Mercer on his team at Single-A Lynchburg in 2009, and that team won the Carolina League title. Forbes said he knew Mercer wasn’t happy about having to return to Double-A for a second year, so he sat down with him before the season and gave him some advice.

“I told him to go there and force their hand,” Forbes, now managing the Dodgers’ Single-A Rancho Cucamonga affiliate, said Monday by phone from Arizona. “To his credit, he did exactly that.”

Forbes made Mercer his No. 3 hitter with the Curve in 2011 and sang his praises at every turn. He frequently spoke of how he believed in Mercer based on what he’d seen during their time at Lynchburg, and Mercer fed off that support from his manager.

“He just believed in me,” Mercer said. “He saw me over the course of time, and he just stuck with me. He knew I was going to work hard for him, I was never going to take a day off. To have someone like that to believe in you each and every day is huge, and it gave me a lot of confidence.”

The same guy who had only three homers all of 2010 looked like a different hitter when he returned to the Curve the next year. Mercer ripped 13 homers in only 72 games, and even though his average dipped a bit to .268, the power surge put him very much back on the Pirates’ prospect map.

“He’s a pro, and you love to say that about guys,” Forbes said. “He’s a guy that I will always look back on in the years that I’ve done this and he’ll always hold a special place in my heart because he’s a ballplayer. He gets it and understands the game.

“I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Mercer struggled a bit in his first Triple-A stint, hitting just .239 in 2011, but he came back in 2012 and hit .287 in 56 games to earn his first call-up to the majors. Last year, he solidified himself as a quality big league hitter and will get a chance to develop further this season as the everyday shortstop.

With the extra playing time, though, will come an added burden to keep making adjustments to what pitchers are trying to do against him. Now that the rest of the league has a book on how to pitch him, it will be up to Mercer to take the necessary steps to adjust.

“The more at-bats I’m going to get, the more I’ll get familiar with it and get my feet wet,” he said.

That’s the big difference for him now. As a part-time player, there was pressure to perform so he could get more opportunities. Now that he’s getting a chance to play every day, Mercer said it will help him “settle down and not put too much focus on one certain at-bat.”

“I can just relax and go with the flow, get with the game speed and just go out and have fun playing,” Mercer said.