With his trade to Boston on Thursday night, Steve Pearce has completed a personal odyssey. By joining the Red Sox, Pearce has now been employed by all five clubs in the American League East. The last leg in his tour of the division moves him from a club with little chance of making the postseason — a Blue Jays team that is beginning to think about next year (or, really, 2020) — to one that figures to be competing with the Yankees into September for a division title.
The Red Sox acquire Pearce for a specific reason: to help against left-handed pitching. The Red Sox have been below average (97 wRC+) against lefties this season, ranking 14th in baseball and eighth in the American League.
Pearce, meanwhile, has always hit lefties well. He owns a career slash line of .264/.346/.494 and 127 wRC+ against left-handers, and this season he has a .306/.358/.531 slash and a 143 wRC+ in 53 plate appearances against lefties. He has played first, left, and right field for the Blue Jays, so he gives the Red Sox options for getting his bat into the lineup.
Peace is a fit in another two other ways for Boston, as well. He has been launching balls into the air before that was a trendy thing. Pearce has a 0.93 GB/FB for his career. Nor is he merely an air-baller but a batter who is pull heavy. He’s directed balls to left field at a 53.8% rate this season. He’s directed a paltry amount of batted balls to the opposite field (15.4%). That combination should fit quite well at Fenway Park.
Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski explained the trade to Alex Speier of The Boston Globe:
“We’ve been looking for a guy that can hit versus left-hand pitching,” Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “Even though we’ve done better — in recent times we’ve swung the bat better — we still have talked about trying to add one more guy that we can put in the lineup against a tough left-hander. He’s traditionally hit left-hand pitching very well . . . He’s a threat to drive in runs, hits the ball out of the ballpark, so I think a guy [who can be] a key cog for us versus certain lefthand pitching.”
It’s the kind of small upgrade that can make a big difference in an AL East race that could go down to the wire. It’s a move that adds value at the margins, yes, but the Red Sox are in a position to do just that. While the Yankees and Red Sox appear to be postseason locks, FanGraphs’ odds give New York the edge for the division; the Red Sox enter play on Friday with a 41.7% chance of winning the East.
As for the Blue Jays, the club has apparently begun to shed assets and take a seller’s position, a logical approach given their 1.7% playoff odds. This author has argued earlier this season, as have others, that this is precisely the course the Blue Jays (37-43) — who are 17 games behind the first-place Red Sox — ought to take. The Blue Jays were a club that made some modest additions in the offseason in attempt to contend for a playoff berth, likely of the Wild Card variety in an AL landscape of Have and Have Nots. Due to a variety of issues, however, the club has fallen out of contention. (Some segment of their fanbase would argue the club didn’t do enough, as attendance is down 400,000 off last year’s pace.)
We should expect other assets to be moved in Toronto, as well, with J.A. Happ likely of great interest to a number of contending clubs.
But the shedding begins with Pearce. In flipping Peace, who is in the final year of a two-year, $12.5 million deal, the Blue Jays pick up an interesting infield prospect Santiago Espinal, a 10th-round pick in the 2016 draft.
While Espinal has not garnered much attention to date in his career, his .313/.363/.477 at High-A this season has placed him on some radars including garnering him Fringe Five acclaim and inclusion on the May 11th edition.
FanGraphs managing editor Carson Citstulli last month dubbed Espinal as one of the Matt Carpenters of High-A:
Selected out of Miami-Dade College in the 10th round of the 2016 draft, Espinal signed for just $50,000. In light of his diminutive stature, Espinal doesn’t appear to offer much projection on the power. Indeed, entering the season, he’d hit just four homers in over 600 professional appearances. Through just 133 plate appearances of the present campaign, however, Espinal already has five.
As is the case with many players who demonstrate this kind of improvement in the majors, Espinal is hitting many fewer batted balls on the ground. In fact, his ability to avoid both the whiff and ground is tops among players at High-A.
Espinal has dropped his ground-ball rate by 15 percentage points this season from 46.2% last season to 31.2% this year. He’s done that by maintaining excellent contact rates and boosting his isolated power from under triple-digits in his first two exposures to professional pitching in 2016 to 2017 to a .164 mark this season.
Espinal is not considered an elite prospect, but he has made himself into a minor-league player of interest. He’s played second, third, and shortstop in the Red Sox system. He gives the Blue Jays another prospect possibly capable of providing value on both sides of the ball. Remember: the Blue Jays’ Double-A team alone includes three legacy prospects in Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., in an infield that could be the foundation of future competitive Jays’ clubs. Vlad Jr. could be an elite bat. Perhaps Espinal can supplement that core in some capacity.
It’s a trade that makes quite a bit of sense for two clubs with very different on-field realities at that moment. The Red Sox could keep adding; the Blue Jays ought to keep shedding. The Red Sox have big dreams for today, the Blue Jays for tomorrow.