Around the Horn: Bucs to again lean on Mercer at short

30-year-old feels ready for everyday play, worked on endurance this offseason

Around the Horn: Bucs to again lean on Mercer at short

With Spring Training only weeks away, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' 2017 roster. This is the fourth of an eight-part series checking in on their current and future options at each position. Next up: shortstop.

Big question: If not 162, then how many?

The truth is, the Pirates don't have many questions at shortstop heading into this season. The job once again belongs to Jordy Mercer, and that's not going to change at any point this year.

Mercer, who tied a career high with 149 games played last season, has joked with manager Clint Hurdle about the idea of playing all 162 regular-season games this year. Is he up to the challenge? Can he be the Bucs' iron man and avoid another second-half drop-off?

Around the Horn: Catcher | First base | Second base

The starter: Mercer

Advanced defensive metrics have never been particularly kind to Mercer, and he was worth a career-low minus-9 Defensive Runs Saved in 2016. But he is consistent, and he makes the routine plays -- traits that have earned him the admiration of Pirates pitchers. Defense is Pittsburgh's top priority at shortstop, and Hurdle considers Mercer good enough to be worthy of National League Gold Glove Award consideration.

Offensively, Mercer improved his on-base percentage last season to .328, his best since 2013, and he notched a career-high 51 walks while cutting down his strikeout rate. The right-handed hitter continued to crush lefties, posting a .275/.378/.451 slash line against southpaws. That platoon prowess prompted Hurdle to bump Mercer into the leadoff spot against some left-handers.

Mercer finished July with a .283 average and a .750 OPS, but he wore down in the final two months, hitting .205 with a .604 OPS in August and September. Mercer focused on endurance this offseason, and he says he feels as if he's a "young 30" years old, ready to play every day if he needs to.

Backing up: Adam Frazier, Jung Ho Kang

Drafted and developed as a shortstop, Frazier figures to be Pittsburgh's new super utility man. Last year, that job -- and the designation of backup shortstop -- belonged to Sean Rodriguez, who signed with the Braves this offseason. Frazier didn't spend much time at shortstop in 2016, but he'll likely work there a lot this spring.

Kang didn't play a single inning at shortstop last year in his return from major left knee surgery, but he lined up there as a rookie and proved to be a serviceable defender. If Kang can slide over to shortstop, Hurdle will have the option to rest Mercer and slot in David Freese at third base.

Kang turns two

Depth: Gift Ngoepe, Max Moroff

If Mercer is injured, the Pirates might turn to the best defensive shortstop they have: Ngoepe. The 27-year-old native of South Africa is on Pittsburgh's 40-man roster because of his excellent defense, but his bat still lags behind. He hit .217/.289/.355 with 130 strikeouts in 102 games for Triple-A Indianapolis last season.

Moroff is another utility-type option behind Mercer. Also drafted and developed as a shortstop, Moroff played second, third and short in Triple-A last season. At the club's minicamp workouts earlier this month, Moroff took grounders at all three positions.

Next up: Kevin Newman

Newman looks like the Pirates' shortstop of the future, and that future may not be far off. The 2015 first-rounder batted .320/.389/.426 with more walks (43) than strikeouts (36) and 10 steals between Class A Advanced Bradenton and Double-A Altoona. Already an advanced contact hitter, he tweaked his stance last year to add more power.

Top Prospects: Newman, PIT

But Newman, 23, is not a finished product. Pittsburgh's No. 4 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, Newman is working to refine his defense, particularly his pre-pitch setup. He hopes to learn more from Mercer this Spring Training, when he'll be in big league camp. This time next year, Mercer could be pushing for the Bucs' shortstop job.

Don't forget about Cole Tucker, the Pirates' No. 7 prospect and first-round pick in 2014. The 20-year-old finished last season in Bradenton, batting .238 with a .613 OPS in 65 games after returning quicker than expected from labrum surgery. He should be back at full strength this spring. Also worth watching -- literally -- is No. 30 prospect Stephen Alemais, a 2016 Draft pick and a seemingly unending supply of defensive highlights.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.