One of the things we enjoy doing at TPOP is speculating on what potential contract extensions may look like for players. We’ve done it with Gerrit Cole, Francisco Cervelli, and Gregory Polanco. We’re pretty good at it.
Through the first month+ of the 2016 season, Jordy Mercer is off to the best start of a season in his career. He’s putting up numbers at the plate (.313/.391/.394, 785 OPS, 113 wRC+) coupled with great strike zone discipline of a 10.2% walk rate and just 11.9% strikeout rate. His work in the field has been spectacular too, as can be seen by some of these gems he’s turned in.
The immediate logical step then would be for us to suggest that Jordy Mercer be approached about a contract extension, one that buys out his two remaining arbitration years and one or two free agent years. However, I would caution against that.
This is Mercer’s age-29 season, so for the two remaining years that Mercer is arbitration-eligible the Pirates control his age-30 and 31 seasons. Mercer’s first potential free agent year would be his age-32 season in 2019, which as we’ve demonstrated in past is a major decision point for the Pirates’ front office. The Pirates have set up contracts with McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco all with age-32 as the inflection point.
With Mercer earning $2.1M in 2016 for his arbitration-1 season, we’ve shown that is typically 25% of a player’s eventual free agent worth, so he could be assigned a value of $8.4M on the open market. Mercer could be expected to garner $3.4M (40%) and $5.0M (60%) in his last two years, as long as his performance doesn’t spike upwards. If Mercer continues this excellent season, those numbers can creep upward, too.
Would a 3 year/$17M contract extension be the worst thing in the world for either party? No. Mercer would probably take it for the financial security. It wouldn’t kill the Pirates, either, as it would lock in Mercer’s final two arbitration years at reasonable rates, while just putting them on the hook for one free agent year at $8-9M.
But just because you can sign a player to a contract doesn’t mean you should sign a player to a contract. I wasn’t thrilled when the Pirates signed Josh Harrison to a long-term extension last year. The Pirates chose to lock down a perfectly cromulent player in Harrison and purchased his first free agent year for $10.25M. I wasn’t sure that Harrison was worth that sum as a guarantee. He was the kind of player I would prefer to go year to year with and I feel somewhat the same about Mercer.
By the time Mercer would be a free agent after the 2018 season, the Pirates may have another shortstop ready from their minor league system. 2015 1st round pick, Kevin Newman, is showing an excellent ability to hit for average (albeit with no power) and great defensive chops early in his pro career. It is foolhardy to say that you don’t need to keep a player and can just rely on a prospect to come up three years from now, but if Newman can approximate the production of Mercer than he would be a suitable replacement.
That’s why I would gauge the situation from year to year with Newman’s development in the background. For as great as Mercer has been at the outset of this year, he’s still not that good as compared to the current crop of great young shortstops in the game like Correa, Lindor, Boegarts, Russell, and Seager. Likewise, Newman doesn’t appear to be ready to join the upper crust of shortstops, either, so using Mercer and Newman as placeholders until the next, great shortstop lands with the Pirates would be a smart use of resources.
The Pirates of 2019 may be in a rebuilding mode, as it is, with that being the year after McCutchen’s 2018 option expires (although I strongly believe he’ll be traded after 2017 to recoup maximum value). The Pirates will still have Marte and Polanco on guaranteed contracts, plus options on Kang and Harrison, plus whatever they garnered from the theoretical McCutchen trade, and the final arbitration year of Gerrit Cole. Could one more year of Mercer help push that team towards success? Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t think it’s an exercise that the Pirates need to explore.