Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins began the offseason by speaking openly about a desire for his team to become younger, athletic and more versatile. He checked off one of those boxes on Monday morning by signing super utility man Steve Pearce.
Toronto kicked off Day 1 of Major League Baseball's annual Winter Meetings by giving Pearce a two-year deal worth $12.5 million. He is expected to platoon at first base with Justin Smoak, but he also could be used in left field and possibly even elsewhere in the infield on occasion.
Pearce is coming off a season in which he hit .288/.374/.492 with 13 home runs and 35 RBIs in 85 games for the Rays and Orioles. He has the ability to play all over the field and it was that skill, plus his prowess vs. left-handed pitching, that caught Atkins' attention.
"The offence in this division, the teammate and the versatility from a defensive standpoint," Atkins said when asked what piqued Toronto's interest.
"How he'll be used, that's one of the things that excites us, is that we don't have to decide that today. We can see how the rest of our roster takes shape, but I think more than likely it's at first base and left field, or a corner outfield."
The Blue Jays gained a reputation over the past couple of years as a team that is extremely tough on lefties, but that wasn't really the case in 2016. They ranked 16th in the Majors with a .747 OPS, and they were 24th with a .249 average. Pearce should help address those issues, as evidenced by a career .852 OPS vs. lefties and a 1.028 OPS in a limited sample of 95 plate appearances this past season.
Pearce is a .254/.333/.441 career hitter with 66 homers in 10 seasons with the Pirates, Orioles, Astros, Yankees and Rays. He signed a one-year deal worth $4.75 million with Tampa Bay in January, and he was traded to Baltimore for the final two months of the 2016 season.
The 33-year-old is not expected to be an everyday player but he'll be a lot more than a regular bench player. There will be ways to get his bat and defensive versatility into the lineup on a pretty regular basis, and the Blue Jays intend to do just that.
"We'll see," Atkins said when asked about playing time. "I think it's going to be dependant on our alternatives and health. I will say, that his track record, I think, had he held up from a health standpoint and had the opportunity, his production certainly warrants that [full-time role], and it could be that he's getting to the point of his career where that happens."
Pearce's season came to an end in mid-September this past season because of a right flexor strain. He has since undergone surgery and is expected to be ready to go by Spring Training. Toronto may initially delay any playing time in the outfield to avoid strenuous throws, but Atkins felt that by Opening Day, Pearce would be fine for that role as well.
The decision to sign Pearce is yet another sign that the club does not appear to be a serious contender to re-sign Edwin Encarnacion. The slugger continues to be linked to the organization through various reports, but Atkins has gone on record to suggest the signings of Pearce and designated hitter Kendrys Morales have all but officially closed the door on that opportunity.
"We considered alternatives, [Pearce and Morales] were very high on our list," Atkins said when asked about moving on to Plan B after not signing Encarnacion. "Very high on our list, as you can see based on how quickly it unfolded. We were aggressive on those two."
Toronto remains in the market for at least one more corner outfielder and possibly even two. The club also needs a backup catcher and a couple of arms in the bullpen. The Blue Jays are expected to have a payroll of approximately $160 million next season, which would leave the club in the range of $25 million to spend once arbitration and pre-arbitration players are factored in.