There’s work to be done in the outfield. We all know it. The Blue Jays have publicly said that they’re comfortable with the group that they currently have slotted into left, right and center, but there’s a big difference between being comfortable and being satisfied.
The Jays have done well to shore up some of their most pressing depth issues with the acquisitions of Aldemys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte, but the outfield still isn’t up to par for a team that insists on competing. As it stands, Kevin Pillar will man center barring an out-of-nowhere trade. Teoscar Hernandez seemed to have the inside track on the right field gig but the newly-signed Curtis Granderson might push him for playing time. Left holds more questions at the moment, and it’s a familiar feeling considering where we were all at a winter ago.
Steve Pearce was signed as some insurance around the infield and an occasional help in left. A little versatility, the ability to crush southpaws, and maybe he could catch some injury luck if he’s not an everyday player. Good, solid. Things rarely work out as planned, however, and he wound up forming a platoon with lefty Ezequiel Carrera. Pearce got hurt again, but still spent parts of 85 of his 92 games out in left field. Now, he finds himself in something resembling no man’s land.
Of course, this wasn’t how things were supposed to go. Justin Smoak showed up in All-Star form, meaning that he deservedly took all the at bats at first base. Kendrys Morales then soaked up all the opportunities at DH. Pearce feeling the squeeze is a perfectly fine tradeoff if Smoak is going to hit 30+ homers every year, but it’s certainly not how the team intended to use him. With both of those players entrenched in those same spots, Pearce has nowhere to go. Morales is unlikely to generate much interest on the trade market and Smoak won’t be going anywhere after last season. The only real spot for Pearce is back out in left field, and that’s if Granderson doesn’t seep into that spot too.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that Granderson is only up for consideration in right at the moment — Pearce’s roadblocks remain. While the Solarte acquisition is more about helping the infield, it doesn’t rule out some games in the outfield for the switch-hitting utility player, though it’s fair to question whether the team should go down that path. Solarte has played left at the Major League level before, but hadn’t taken a turn there since 2014 before playing there in the most recent World Baseball Classic. That doesn’t mean that the Jays won’t at least entertain the idea, however, and the team probably prefers him to Pearce overall if we’re talking about potential bench pieces. A guy who can play all over the diamond is of more use in a bench spot than someone who can really only man two positions and the DH.
It seems like a move of some sort is on the horizon. Pearce’s positions of strength look like redundancies on the current iteration of the roster, and the only spot for him happens to be the least-optimal place for him to play. That’s less than ideal in terms of asset management.
So with Pearce staring down the barrel of another year as a full-time left fielder and the team attempting to acquire for a potential challenger for that playing time, what are the options? And what are the Jays really trying to do this season?
If they’re genuine about trying to win, a Pearce/Carrera platoon likely will not cut it. There are plenty of other spots on this roster that are pretty high variance, and while this pair has a little higher floor than you might think, it’s just not going to boost the team to an overall level where they should be content with things as they stand. You’re counting on a lot of things going right if Pearce and Carrera are the ones holding left field down for a playoff team.
Ideally, another free agent reshuffles the deck in the outfield. A guy like Lorenzo Cain would be great but the Jays could find a second moderately priced, full-time outfielder on the free agent market without much trouble at this point in the offseason. Similarly, the team could be working the phones and nab an outfielder on the trade market. Not necessarily a world-beater, and not necessarily as a return for Pearce himself.
The Jays are lucky in the sense that Pearce is on a solid contract that allows them to look at a few different options. He’s owed $6.25 million this year before hitting free agency next winter. To make a long story short, he’s a solid player on an affordable deal; the type of player that can fit on just about any roster. Especially one that doesn’t happen to have major obstacles at first and DH. He’s not the most appealing player to trade, but he does have value and wouldn’t cause a payroll overhaul for whoever would acquire him. High-floor, low-ceiling guys can almost always find a team interested in their services.
Besides, what could the Jays reasonably do with Pearce right now, let alone if they acquire another full-time outfielder? After the Granderson signing, he’s now got another body to contend with for playing time. With Pearce, Carrera and Hernandez presumably battling for two spots, it’s worth asking where each player ranks as an organizational priority as well as which of the trio provides the least utility as a fourth outfielder. The Jays shouldn’t fill up four roster spots for two outfield platoons, so he might have a little breathing room from that perspective given Hernandez’s remaining options. Perhaps that was an impetus for the Granderson deal, as the veteran could allow Hernandez to work out any kinks in AAA if he doesn’t win a job in Dunedin. Even then, the clock is ticking and it’s clear that Hernandez is gunning for a full-time slot this year. Between his own limitations in the outfield and the guys ahead of him in the infield, Pearce would have incredibly limited opportunities for playing time while also clogging the bench. That doesn’t sound like a good fit for a front office that’s done well to increase the strength of the team’s depth.
On the other hand, keeping a Carrera/Pearce platoon wouldn’t be the end of the world if Hernandez does get sent down – as our own Dave Church pointed out, the duo nearly combined for enough WARP to put the Jays at a league-average level last season – it’s that it would lock the team into a middling solution at a position where potential upgrades exist, with little room for tangible upgrades elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with raising the team’s baseline marginally through low-risk moves, but in a year that’s already filled with uncertainties it just doesn’t move the needle much.
Holding onto Pearce, assuming no outside alternative swoops in to save the day, does prevent a number of prospects from being thrown to the wolves (as does the Granderson signing), and he’s not on a deal that can’t be moved midseason if someone lights up Buffalo and forces the team’s hand. I’ll also reiterate that he’s a solid player. But it also signals a concession; that the team wasn’t willing to sacrifice future flexibility, in terms of either dollars or prospects, to take this group to the next level in an abbreviated window. That might be (and probably is) the right call. But if so, then there are a number of other players who should be on the block. Whether or not the team moves on from Pearce won’t be the delineator between rebuilding and contention, but it will be revealing in the sense that we’ll know which outfield market prices the organization deems too rich for their blood.
A trade of Pearce would allow the team to clear a small logjam and provide them another avenue to pursue an upgrade, whether that’s in left or somewhere else on the roster. Standing pat just doesn’t jive with what’s been said about the team’s plans for the upcoming season. If you’re looking for someone to offload who won’t need a parting gift attached, Pearce looks like the guy.
I like Steve Pearce. He’s a good player on a good contract who can be a very helpful glue guy on a successful team. Right now, he and his contract give the team some options. This is far from a call to trade him, but something’s got to give. While some of it hinges on whether or not the Jays can pick an adequate outfielder off the free agent pile, it’s just hard to see how things don’t change given the overlapping skillsets currently on the roster.
Steve Pearce just appears to be the odd man out.
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