On Sunday afternoon, Steve Pearce became a folk hero in Blue Jays land with one swing of the bat. On a 2-0 fastball from Bud Norris, the 34-year-old launched a ball into the left-field stands for a walk-off grand slam to complete the biggest ninth-inning comeback in franchise history.
It was his second walk-off grand slam in the week, making him the first Blue Jay to manage the feat twice. He not only saved the game and prevented a sweep, but also injected some life into something of a listless season in Toronto.
Theoretically, it was the sort of moment that brings a player, club and city closer together. In practice, the best thing for the Blue Jays would be to ship Pearce out of town before Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline. Dealing Pearce less than 24 hours after such a feel-good moment seems almost cruel, but baseball is a tough business and the Blue Jays can’t let a couple of emotional moments cloud their approach to roster construction.
Because Toronto intends to remain competitive in 2018, the impetus to move Pearce – who is under contract for next season – doesn’t seem strong at this point. There’s a reason why the most commonly floated Blue Jays names in trade rumours so far have been expiring contracts like Joe Smith and Francisco Liriano.
However, circumstances have changed significantly since Pearce signed his two-year deal and he no longer has a logical fit on the roster. When the Blue Jays signed him in December it looked like he would play a lot of first base – possibly even stealing the starting job from the then-shaky Justin Smoak – and play in the outfield occasionally.
Now the right-handed slugger is the team’s everyday left fielder, but he’s an outfielder in name only and resides there because the Blue Jays lack a viable alternative and desperately need offence.
This year, the veteran is running a -5.9 UZR and -7 DRS in just over a third of season’s worth of innings. At this point in his career he seriously lacks range and doesn’t have a big arm to help compensate. Although he’s an above-average hitter, he’s not the kind of offensive superstar worth punting left field defence on.
The issue the Blue Jays face is that there’s no other place they can play Pearce. With Kendrys Morales on a multi-year deal worth eight figures annually, and Smoak breaking out as one of the league’s top hitters, the club is about set at the first base and designated hitter spots. The only way to deploy Pearce consistently in 2018 would be to run him out in left field again at the age of 35 – which would cost the team runs defensively and put the oft-injured veteran in position where he’s more likely to get hurt.
Nothing about that situation sounds ideal for the team or the player. As a result, the best thing the Blue Jays can do is ship Pearce to a team who could make better use of him. The Kansas City Royals, for instance, desperately need an upgrade on Brandon Moss at DH, but probably don’t want to spend big in either payroll dollars or prospect capital.
Should the Blue Jays move Pearce, the return won’t be particularly impressive. His age and injury history limit his value on the trade market, as does a 2017 line of .267/.319/.462 that’s solid, but unspectacular – thanks to a brutal April. That doesn’t justify holding onto him though.
If the Blue Jays can get any vaguely interesting prospect – even one years away from the big leagues – they should pull the trigger. A lottery ticket – plus the ability to take the money Pearce is owed and reallocate it to a piece that fits more logically into the team – is preferable to keeping the veteran.
Maybe that $6.25 million in 2018 goes into a middle relief arm instead. Maybe it accounts for half of back-end starter or outfielder the Blue Jays will desperately need. Either way, the money is better spent in that fashion than on a third 1B/DH for a team with veterans like Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin who could really use the odd DH day.
Steve Pearce is a good player. He’s an above-average hitter, who can play a solid first base and crush lefties. He can play a little outfield once in a while if his team is in a serious pinch. His price tag of $6.25 million is not particularly prohibitive. There are plenty of teams that could use a guy like Pearce – just not the Blue Jays.