The time for Neil Walker's return is fast approaching; he's playing today and tomorrow at Altoona to shake loose the rust and should be back in Pittsburgh for the Milwaukee series on Monday. That's when the Bucs have to make a move.
Right now, the infield reserves are Brandon Inge, 35, and John McDonald, 38, with Jordy Mercer, 26, filling in after Walker was DL'ed. Inge is pretty much a jack of all trades, though most suited to third base; Old McDonald is more a middle infield option and Mercer can play SS-2B-3B. Inge and Mercer are hitting .286 with McDonald lagging badly behind at .067, and there's the rub.
Mercer was called up and the book was that he'd get a couple of starts at second and go down to groom his SS game again at Indy full-time. Clint Barmes, 34, is in the last year of his contract, and Mercer is the only MLB ready option internally, so it makes sense to get him steady at-bats and reps in the field as the FO evaluates him for 2014. He only hit .210 in Pittsburgh last season, though he was buried by Clint Hurdle at the end of the pine.
But in 28 at-bats this year, he's banged out three homers, two doubles, scored five times, driven in four runs. and hit safely in 6-of-8 games. He won't keep those numbers going, inflated by a strong showing today, but he was drafted in the third round as a bat-first infielder in 2008 and was hitting .333 for the Tribe when he was called up, after a .287 season in 2012. And he's become more than competent as an infielder.
Inge is safe; he can play all over the field, even if he is a third option, and his history suggests he'll be a .235 hitter, in the Josh Harrison range but with a little more pop in the bat. And if he falters during the season, Harrison and Ivan DeJesus are younger comparable players who are a call away at Indy.
So that leaves it between Mercer and McDonald as the guy to go when The Kid returns. If you're looking at it in the short term, for this season, then kiss Old McDonald goodbye. But if the question is what's best for the long term?
Mercer has been in the lineup for all but one game since Walker's been out, and it's no surprise that he's hitting better. As an everyday guy at Indy, the hardest adjustment for him at the dish is to get a weekly start and pinch hit. The key question is will the skipper give him the starts he needs to get a rhythm at the plate if he stays? To do that, Inge has to become the last rather than first option for the infield off the bench.
The answer lies with Hurdle. If he has enough confidence in Mercer to give him a start or two weekly at short and some love as a RH hot corner guy when Pedro sits against lefties, then Mercer should stay and get tested in the fire. But if he's going to be the replacement McDonald and bat five times a week while Inge soaks up the available at-bats, then it's better to let him play everyday at Indy. It's a hard call for the skipper; he's semper fi to his vets like Barmes and Inge. But ultimately, it is his call. It'll be an interesting one.