Mercer welcomes competition with Kang at short

Pirates veteran has newfound attention coming from Korean media

Mercer welcomes competition with Kang at short

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jordy Mercer, turns out, has become a household name in South Korea. Just how big the 28-year-old Okie is on the other side of the world became apparent when he was approached by a Korean camera crew Saturday morning and asked to say hello to his new friends.

Mercer bent his 6-foot-3 frame, peered into the camera lens and said, waving, "Hi, Korea! How you doin'?"

"That's cool. Pretty neat," Mercer later said about this new popularity. "I've never been over there. I would like to get there someday."

In reality, Mercer doesn't know what to make of this celebrity, because he knows it's somewhat the sort shared by people whose images are on post office walls -- he is wanted, or certainly his position is, by Jung Ho Kang and the Korean player's fans.

The Korean reporter who had broken to Mercer the news about his fame needlessly added, "You know, because you will be competing with him."

Outlook: Kang, SS, PIT

Does that perception rub Mercer the wrong way? After all, he is an established Major League shortstop, in the eyes of some, even one of the new elite at that position. Kang is a rightful challenger, but doesn't the "competitor" tag prematurely make him a peer of Mercer?

"Oh, that doesn't upset me. Talk like that just sharpens my competitive edge," Mercer said. "It makes me want to go out and compete to the best of my ability. If we can put all that behind us, we'll be better off."

"That," of course, was Kang dropping an early gauntlet by implying he could "do better" than the Bucs' incumbent shortstop. There is consensus that whole episode is owed to a misunderstanding, but there also is consensus about Kang's confidence, and his physical tools. Mercer has seen some of them, with the two of them taking grounders in early drills.

"We've worked out together a few times. There is a bit of a language barrier between us, but I'm just trying to take it step by step and get to know him," Mercer said. "I've moved on [from the controversy]. I'm not really worried about it at all, to be honest. I'm here to play, and to prepare for the season."

You kind of wonder if this is how Ed Stevens felt. Who? Stevens was the 1946 Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman -- replaced the next season by Jackie Robinson. While this developing story isn't nearly on a comparable level, Kang is in fact trying to blaze a new trail for his countrymen.

"The competition, I think, will bring out the best in both of us," Mercer said. "Your focus goes up. You play better. You're going to excel."

For Mercer to be any more focused than he was the last four months of the 2014 season, that would be something. His final, respectable numbers -- .255, with 41 extra-base hits, 12 homers and 55 RBIs -- hide the fact he carried a .199 average and had seven RBIs through May.

"You get back home after the season, sit on the couch and reflect ... yeah, I was really proud of myself, the way I picked myself up after struggling those first two months," he said. "I want to build off that, start off at the same point."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.