Pirates banking on Newman to hit

The Pirates have an interesting decision to make with shortstop Jordy Mercer, and it’s not making matters easy for them that the Curve’s Kevin Newman is having a down year so far at the plate.

Newman is the Bucs’ shortstop of the future. A first-round draft pick in 2015, he can hit for a high average and has a steady, reliable glove.

Mercer, meanwhile, will be a free agent after next season. He will be 31 years old then, too.

Mercer has been a solid, above-average everyday shortstop the past few seasons. But signing him to a contract extension at his age, for roughly $6-8 million a year, doesn’t fit with the organization’s philosophy with players on the other side of their prime.

The easy decision would be to trade Mercer, either at the deadline this year or in the offseason, when he would still bring something in return, and then have Newman take over shortstop sometime next year.

There’s a bit of a catch, though. Newman has been in a funk recently and saw his batting average dip to .228 during Tuesday night’s game. He then delivered a clutch RBI single in the seventh inning that gave the Curve a lead, and his average currently sits at .231.

“Baseball is a frustrating game,” Newman, who was hitting .272 on May 13, said of his recent slump. “I’ve lined out a lot, and my swing feels comfortable, and I feel good in the box. I’m getting unlucky, and that’s kind of how it goes sometimes.”

May 13 was when Newman got hit in the head by a pitch for the second time in four days. The first one, at Richmond, sent him to the hospital for tests, and he was OK. The second one, at home against New Hampshire, grazed the bill of his helmet and caused no damage.

Since that day, though, Newman has gone 8-for-55 at the plate, a .145 average that’s dropped his overall mark 41 points.

The timing could be just a coincidence. But Newman also was hit in the face by a pitch last year at Bradenton and missed three weeks, so it begs the question of whether those hits to the head have affected him at the plate.

“I wouldn’t say so,” Newman said. “It’s kind of an eerie feeling the first day back maybe, first two days back. But since then everything’s good and everything feels fine.”

Curve manager Michael Ryan said last week that Newman was “just a little late getting ready” to hit, so that was a point of emphasis. Newman has hit safely in three straight games and five of his last seven, but only at a 5-for-28 clip (.179).

“He’s getting pitched pretty tough,” Ryan said. “They’re not throwing him two pitches in a row in the same location, he’s not getting two pitches in a row that are the same pitch. It’s just a matter of picking that one out and trying to do some damage with it.

“Right now I think he’s being a little bit too fine. One night he wants to pull, the next he’s trying to go the other way. … One thing he’s good at is dictating each at-bat, and I think right now pitchers are dictating what they want to do to him. Not that he’s letting them, he’s just in between right now.”

It was a little surprising that Newman returned to the Curve this season after hitting .288 in 61 games last year, especially since the Pirates have made a habit of moving players much more quickly up the ladder in recent years.

But as this season has proven, the 23-year-old still has a lot to learn about himself as a hitter, and it turns out the Pirates were wise to have him spend more time in Double-A. For his part, Newman said he wasn’t disappointed about coming back.

“No, I knew where the pieces were going to lie,” he said. “I thought there was a strong chance I was going to come back here, and I needed to come back here and continue to make my game better. Whether I’m here or anywhere else, there are still things that can be learned, progress that can be made no matter where you’re at.”

It’s easy to tell watching Newman that he has what it takes to be a very good hitter. He does a lot of things right, makes good contact, doesn’t strike out much and battles every time up.

The batting average, therefore, is bound to go up. So will his .613 OPS.

The Pirates need to see those figures go up, too, because they have big plans for Newman. And if he doesn’t start hitting like everyone knows he’s capable of, it can change what the club decides to do with Mercer.

The same thing has always been true about Austin Meadows. The Pirates are going to trade Andrew McCutchen at some point, it’s just a matter of when and for how much value in return.

It would be a lot easier to deal McCutchen away if the highly touted Meadows were lighting it up in Triple-A. He’s long been the heir apparent. Meadows, however, struggled mightily early on this season, hitting .194 the first month. Pirates officials have to be breathing a sigh of relief that he’s been on fire of late, raising his average up to .262 and OPS to a more respectable .692 (from a miserable .519 three weeks ago).

One or two good weeks, and Newman could be right back up into the .270s. He’s smart enough about the game to know that a big slump — and this one is as big as he’s had in his life — can still teach valuable lessons.

“You learn to trust your abilities,” Newman said. “It’s good sometimes to get a struggle like this out of the way because it will happen eventually. There’s a very, very select amount of people who will never have a slump like this in their career, and good for those people. They’re freaks, and they’re far and few between.

“But for the most part, everybody is going to go through something like this, and I can get through it.”

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.