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With Mercer a FA, Bucs face uncertainty at short

MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- What's one thing Jordy Mercer provided the Pirates as their Opening Day shortstop the last five years? Stability. The last three seasons, he hit between .251 and .256 while logging an OPS+ between 88 and 93. Mercer was never a star, but he was pretty close to a sure thing.

Mercer is now a free agent, and the Pirates are facing an uncertain future at shortstop. They have prospects Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker, both former first-round Draft picks, but neither appears to be ready for the everyday job. Tucker is likely ticketed for Triple-A to start next season, and Newman struggled down the stretch in his first taste of the big leagues.

PITTSBURGH -- What's one thing Jordy Mercer provided the Pirates as their Opening Day shortstop the last five years? Stability. The last three seasons, he hit between .251 and .256 while logging an OPS+ between 88 and 93. Mercer was never a star, but he was pretty close to a sure thing.

Mercer is now a free agent, and the Pirates are facing an uncertain future at shortstop. They have prospects Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker, both former first-round Draft picks, but neither appears to be ready for the everyday job. Tucker is likely ticketed for Triple-A to start next season, and Newman struggled down the stretch in his first taste of the big leagues.

"The game is a little bit quicker up here," general manager Neal Huntington said of Newman in September. "He's not the first infielder to get beaten by the speed of the game and the speed of the runners, and he's having to adjust his internal clock a little bit. He has the ability to play a good shortstop, and he's learning how Major League pitchers are going to attack him."

While offering a vote of confidence in Newman, Huntington mentioned the possibility of bringing in another shortstop this offseason -- a more proven player, possibly even Mercer.

Video: PIT@ATL: Mercer makes an incredible diving play

"As we've talked before, we'll leave the door open with Jordy Mercer, we'll leave the door open to look for a veteran option at shortstop," Huntington said. "A lot of it will depend on opportunity and resources available, and how does it impact what else we want to do, what else we can do, and how do they compare to how we feel Kevin Newman will be going forward?"

No matter who it is, there probably won't be a ton of pressure on next year's shortstop to be an offensive force. Mercer typically batted eighth, and the Pirates will return most of their top hitters: Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco (when healthy), Francisco Cervelli, Elias Diaz, Adam Frazier, Josh Bell and Colin Moran. Each of those eight players posted an above-average OPS+ last season.

But the Pirates' infield defense was a weakness, one that could be addressed with a sure-fielding shortstop. According to the SABR Defensive Index, an advanced metric that factored into the Gold Glove Award voting, Bell and Moran were the worst qualified defenders in the National League at their respective positions while Mercer ranked 13th out of 15 NL shortstops.

"We know that we need to get better defensively in the infield, and our guys are working on that," Huntington said in September. "Whether the internal personnel is there, we'll take a look to see what's available externally, but our infield defense is definitely an area we can get better."

The free-agent pool of shortstops is short on star power, other than Manny Machado, but full of glove-first veterans who could help the Pirates until their prospects take the next step. Maybe they'll hand the job to Newman or bring back Mercer. Perhaps they'll make a trade. Or they could consider one of these veteran options:

Adeiny Hechavarria: The Pirates took a close look at Hechavarria, 29, while Mercer was injured in August, then flipped him to the Yankees to create playing time for Newman in September. Known for his excellent defense at shortstop, Hechavarria is a career .254/.290/.345 hitter. Working in his favor: familiarity with the Pirates, an elite glove and the ability to also play second and third base.

Video: Adeiny Hechavarria becomes a free agent before 2019

Jose Iglesias: Among free agent shortstops, only Machado posted a higher Wins Above Replacement total last season than Iglesias (2.5). He slashed .269/.310/.389 with 15 steals for the Tigers in 2018 and ranked fourth among American League shortstops in the SABR Defensive Index. He doesn't strike out much (47 in 464 plate appearances) but walks even less. He has shown higher offensive upside, as he hit .300 with a 99 OPS+ as an All-Star in 2015, and he will only be 29 years old next season.

Video: Jose Iglesias brings slick glove to free agent pool

Freddy Galvis: Like Iglesias, Galvis will be 29 next season. And if you want to talk about dependability, Galvis has played 162 games each of the last two years. He's another solid defender, as he posted seven Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop last season. The former Phillie also showed some pop for the Padres this year, hitting 13 homers and 31 doubles while slashing .248/.299/.380. He blasted 20 homers for Philadelphia in 2016, and he has moved around the infield when necessary.

Video: Freddy Galvis set to enter free agency in 2019

Alcides Escobar: An everyday shortstop during Kansas City's postseason runs in 2014 and '15, Escobar has taken a step back for the rebuilding Royals. He hit just .231 with a .593 OPS, four homers and only eight steals in 140 games this year. A Gold Glove winner in 2015, Escobar did not grade out as well defensively, either; his SABR Defensive Index was the lowest among qualified AL shortstops. Escobar, who will turn 32 in December, does offer experience and versatility as he also played second, third and center field for the Royals last season.

Video: Alcides Escobar set to hit free agency in 2019

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Jordy Mercer