NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. – By signing Steve Pearce, the Toronto Blue Jays addressed a need and kept their options open for 2017. As a result, though, there’s seemingly no room for Edwin Encarnacion in Toronto barring the unforeseen.
Pearce’s two-year, $12.5 million deal provides the Blue Jays with versatility and right-handed power in a move that preserves their roster flexibility. Though Pearce has experience at second base, third base and right field, GM Ross Atkins expects most of his playing time will be at first base and left field, where the Blue Jays consider him an average defender or better.
"That’s one of the things that excites about him is that we don’t have to decide (on a position) today," Atkins said. "We can see how the rest of our roster takes shape.”
The deal complicates the first base picture for the Blue Jays, with the return of Encarnacion now extremely hard to imagine. Atkins acknowledged that a deal with Encarnacion became "less probable" Monday, though he said one could theoretically occur if both sides were willing to be "creative."
Encarnacion will now continue to explore a fast-moving first base/DH market that’s seen the Astros (Carlos Beltran), Yankees (Matt Holliday) and Blue Jays add bats in recent days.
Justin Smoak now lines up as a potential platoon partner for Pearce, though their precise roles will depend on the rest of the Blue Jays’ off-season moves.
"There’s a lot of scenarios that could play out," Atkins said. “It could be that the bulk of Steve’s playing time comes in left and now Justin’s got an opportunity to play even more. Having (the Pearce) option is one that we would prefer (compared to) not.”
Regardless of how the pieces ultimately fit together in Toronto, Pearce brings a proven ability to hit left-handed pitching, as evidenced by a .852 OPS against southpaws in his career and a 1.028 OPS against them in 2016. The 33-year-old has parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues, the last five of which have come in the AL East – a selling point for the Blue Jays.
Defensively, Pearce is considered a steady if not spectacular defender by some rival evaluators. However, his 2016 season was cut short by an elbow issue that prompted him to undergo surgery to repair flexor tendons in his right forearm. He didn’t play after Sept. 12, but the Blue Jays were encouraged by what they heard while doing background work on Pearce, and expect him to be able to throw from the outfield early in 2017.
"Nothing is definite, but we’re optimistic that he’ll be able to play the outfield," Atkins said. "It could be as early as opening day."
Durability has been an issue for Pearce, who has played more than 100 games just once since making his MLB debut with the 2007 Pirates. Even so, the Blue Jays had interest in him two years ago when he became a free agent in April of 2014 before his breakout season in Baltimore.
Pearce’s deal falls in line with the contract signed by Sean Rodriguez, another versatile righty bat who caught the Blue Jays’ interest in free agency. Rodriguez obtained a two-year, $11.5-million deal from the Braves earlier this off-season.
The Blue Jays appeared to have legitimate interest in Mitch Moreland late Sunday, but they now seem unlikely to pursue further first base help unless a deal with Encarnacion materializes. Atkins said Encarnacion is "the one guy" on the first base market the Blue Jays plan to monitor.
In the meantime, Pearce provides the Blue Jays with a quality addition, one of many they’ll require to return to the playoffs for a third consecutive season.