Journeyman. AAAA hitter. Fringe roster piece. You could say it a lot of ways before 2014, but basically you were saying the same thing, and if you said it about Steve Pearce, you were part of a broad consensus. Pearce had bounced around among the Orioles, Yankees and Astros multiple times in just a couple years, bringing with him at each stop some adequate versatility (1B, LF, RF) and a right-handed bat that could handle left-handed pitching pretty well. Nothing that made him an everyday player or a vital part of an organization's future, but a guy who could always stick somewhere in the big leagues.
All of that changed in 2014. Heading into May, it looked like another typical Pearce season, and in fact the Orioles designated him for assignment when he wasn't getting any playing time (he had just 7 PAs in April). Two days later, in a head-spinning flurry, Chris Davis went on the disabled list, and the Orioles, lacking a natural backup first baseman, came "crawling back" to Pearce (in Buck Showalter's words). Pearce spurned a claim from the Blue Jays to re-sign with the Orioles, and the rest is history.
And by "history," I don't necessarily mean the stuff of baseball lore, but certainly the stuff of Steve Pearce's career lore. Pearce basically equaled or exceeded the rest of his career output in five months. Check it out:
Steve Pearce's 2014 story is the kind that baseball fans just have to love. A guy who was grinding it out, spending time on the bench and out of the spotlight, for love of the game -- a guy who nearly quit professional baseball in the previous year -- suddenly gets a chance to shine, and does so, in a vital role for a playoff-bound club. Try to imagine where the Orioles would have ended up without Pearce's breakout season (or don't, because it's not fun). With Chris Davis at alternating points scuffling, hurt or suspended, the Orioles needed a first baseman who was more than just a warm body, and man, did Pearce end up fitting that bill.
Offensive breakout seasons like Pearce's, at age 30 and from a journeyman, don't come along every day. And of course, a lot of folks will be eyeing Pearce's 2015 and looking for regression to the mean. We don't know how much the Orioles plan to play Pearce yet -- questions like Davis's productivity and re-signing Nick Markakis will have a lot to do with it -- but if they do, the normal statistical indicators of a fluky season (batting average on balls in play, HR/fly ball ratio, etc.) actually don't forebode ominous things. Even if Pearce comes back to earth a bit (particularly in the defensive part of his game), he may well have proven that he can hang against major-league pitching in a full-time (or nearly full-time) role and add value to the club.
Pearce is in the odd position of being third-year arbitration eligible but having a baseline salary near the major-league minimum ($700k) because of his minor role leading up to this season. MLB Trade Rumors estimates that Pearce will receive a raise to $2.2M, which seems about right given the monster year he just put up. At that price, the Orioles can definitely expect Pearce to be some kind of asset to the club, regression or no, without the risk of the premium prices that Matt Wieters, Chris Davis and Bud Norris will be commanding in their final arbitration years.