Blue Jays free agent hunt: Is backwards better?

Given the number of holes in the Blue Jays’ lineup, should they be looking to stabilize first and then big game hunt?

Conventional wisdom has it that a team should focus its off-season initially on the big-name free agents. Only once it knows where it stands with those players should it backfill with lesser players for its remaining needs. Makes sense, but could the 2016-17 Blue Jays be an exception?

The Jays face an unusual situation in that they have so many needs.  Up for grabs (to varying extents) are LF, RF, 1B, DH and various bullpen roles.  There are backup options for each of these positions, but those backups have limitations.

What if the Blue Jays could sign a player who provides them with a backup option with higher upside at several of those positions? A sort of Zobrist-lite who could be moved to a different position if the Jays succeed in signing a better option, but whose presence on the roster would reduce the panic factor?  Might it not make sense to sign that player first, and then start the (possibly lengthy) negotiations with the stars?

Let’s talk about Steve Pearce

Pearce is a 33-year-old free agent, coming off a solid year with the Rays and Orioles.  In 2016, he batted .288 / .374 / .492 (for a wRC+ of 136) while playing 1B, 2B, 3B, LF and RF.  He is a right-handed batter, but his splits are strong: over the last three years, he has a 125 wRC+ against right-handed pitching and a 145 against lefties.

In fact, over that three-year period, his overall wRC+ of 131 was the 23rd highest in baseball (minimum 1000 PAs) – higher than Cano, Betts, Beltre (and also higher than Cespedes, Braun and Puig, all of whom have been speculated to be Jays targets).

The knock against Pearce is that he has always been treated as a bench/fill-in bat.  He has never had more than 383 plate appearances in a single season in his career, and has the reputation of being a one-dimensional “lefty masher”.

Why do I like Steve?

First and foremost, I see Pearce as a good player with upside, who has just never been given the chance to show what he could do in a full-time gig.   His 2016 wRC+ of 136 was 17th in baseball (minimum 300 PAs) – higher than Edwin or Jose.  The man can hit.

Second, his defensive flexibility is a huge plus.  Over his career, Pearce has a UZR/150 of +8.8 (excellent) at 1B, +1.7 (above average) at 2B, +2.1 in LF (above average) and -0.1 (average) in RF.  And this is despite playing multiple positions every year.  He should be a legitimate option at all four of those positions, as well as DH (he can also play 3B, but not nearly as well).

This would allow the Jays to play him like a Ben Zobrist, filling in for injured players and allowing for late-inning defensive flexibility when pinch-hitting or pinch-running.  And, given Devon Travis‘s injuries over the last two years, having a player on the roster who can not only play decent 2B but also hit would have considerable insurance value.

Third, Steve should be cheap.  MLBTR projects him signing for 2 years at $10 million.  At that price, even if he ended up on the bench he should still add value.

Why would he come to Toronto?

Clearly, a player like Pearce will have multiple suitors.  Why would he consider Toronto?

In 2014, Pearce was bring courted by the Jays and the Orioles.  He ultimately chose the Orioles, but not before saying:

“Davis went down so there was an opportunity for me to go out there [Baltimore] and play for a while. That was probably the main reason. Nothing against Toronto, I definitely would have gone and played there if there wasn’t an opportunity to play here.”

This quote is interesting on two levels.  First, Pearce does not appear to have the concerns about playing in Canada that many other players have expressed.  And second, he seems to place a high value on playing time.  With the number of holes in the 2017 Blue Jays lineup, it is hard to imagine a better opportunity to have substantial PAs, possibly even in a consistent role.

The bottom line

Pearce would appear to be a good fit for the 2017 Jays on many levels. It would make sense to lock him up early in the signing season, rather than taking the chance that he will no longer be available when the big boys sign.

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