Among the position battles for the Blue Jays in Spring Training this year, the left fielder’s job appears to be up for grabs, and could fall into the lap of new acquisition, Steve Pearce.
The Blue Jays entered this offseason with two big holes in their outfield picture, as both Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders were free agents. We now know that Bautista will be back for 2017, and it’s assumed that he’ll at least start the season as the everyday right fielder. Saunders will not be back, as he signed a 1 year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.
In his absence, the left field job appears to be an open competition this spring. Among the expected candidates, the Blue Jays will have several options to choose from including Ezequiel Carrera, Melvin Upton, Dalton Pompey, and new acquisition, Steve Pearce.
Pompey has minor league options remaining, so he’ll have to really impress in order to make the club out of Spring Training. In the case of Carrera, he’s out of options, so the Blue Jays may give him a longer leash for fear of losing him to another club through the waiver process. Upton will likely serve of the fourth outfielder, and possibly as the right-handed portion of an outfield platoon.
But what about Pearce?
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Pearce spent last season split between the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays. He’s a versatile player, having spent time at first, second, and third base, as well as both corner outfield positions. While he’s not exactly a gold glove candidate at any of the above positions, Pearce’s flexibility gives manager John Gibbons many options, which could include a great deal of time spent in the outfield.
The Blue Jays opened the offseason with a few goals in mind, including improving in OBP, speed, and outfield defence, as well as hoping to get a little less reliant on the long ball. With that in mind, Pearce’s acquisition was a bit unexpected, only because he didn’t fit many of the descriptions for what the Blue Jays were after. He is an above average hitter with the ability to get on base, but beyond that, he wasn’t an obvious choice to bring into the fold.
While many expect Pearce to make the majority of his appearances at first base, there is a very real possibility that he could see extended time in the outfield. There are several variables that will affect that scenario, such as the performance of first baseman Justin Smoak, but regardless, Pearce should be in the lineup the majority of the time.
To me, the biggest question to answer is, how much worse could he be in the outfield than Michael Saunders or Jose Bautista were last year? Let’s take a look:
In Pearce’s case, I chose to provide his 2015-16 numbers, mostly because he didn’t play a great deal in the outfield last season. For Bautista, he spent a lot of last season injured, so I felt it was relevant to include his 2015 stats out there as well.
Taking a closer look, there’s a solid case to be made for using Pearce in the outfield. While he’s no Kevin Pillar out there, he doesn’t appear to be any worse than Bautista or Saunders. Taking the Rtot (total fielding runs above average) and Rdrs (defensive runs saved average) stats into consideration, Pearce actually graded out as good, or better than last year’s corner-combo.
Does this mean he should be the starter in left field? That remains to be seen, and there are several variables that will help determine where he plays this season.
Will Justin Smoak figure things out at the plate? If not, Pearce could see significant time at first base. Will Devon Travis finally be able to stay healthy for a full season? If not, Pearce could end up starting at second base. Will Bautista be able to perform well enough in the outfield that he can continue starting out there? If not, he may need to move to first base and/or DH in order to maximize his skill set.
Pearce’s defensive position will likely have far more to do with the performance of his new teammates than anything he does in Spring Training. As long as he can prove his throwing arm is healthy (he had surgery on his forearm), there’s a good chance he could end up as a part of the outfield picture.