"We've always liked Eckstein," Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "It's a situation where it fell in our lap. It was one that we talked a little bit about, but it wasn't high on our agenda until a couple other things played themselves out."
On Wednesday, the Blue Jays opted not to tender a contract to Josh Towers, who would've come with a salary of at least $2.4 million in arbitration. Instead, Towers became a free agent and Toronto was able to dedicate that money to Eckstein, who said the makeup of the Jays' roster appealed to him.
"It's definitely a great opportunity," Eckstein said. "They have a great ballclub intact on which you've got great pitching and great position players. I think they have a great chance to win. Looking at that club, when they came and said they were interested in me, I got very excited."
It was believed the Jays were content with entering the 2008 campaign with McDonald as their everyday shortstop, considering they inked the stellar defender to a two-year deal worth $3.8 million in September. While McDonald is a better glove man than Eckstein, Toronto's latest acquistion can provide more offense.
Last season, Eckstein posted a career-best average of .309 with the Cardinals and added three home runs and 31 RBIs in 117 games. In his seven-year career, Eckstein has hit .285 with a .351 on-base percentage between tours with the Angels, with whom he won the World Series in 2002, and Cardinals.
McDonald hit just .251 with one homer and 31 RBIs in 123 games for the Jays last season. Where McDonald shined was on defense, where he made just eight errors and posted a .986 fielding percentage in 102 games at short.
Eckstein was charged with 20 errors and finished with a .960 fielding mark in 114 games last season with St. Louis. It was a considerable drop-off from Eckstein's showing over the previous four seasons, in which he made fewer than 10 errors in three separate campaigns.
"John is a great player and is definitely known as a great defensive shortstop," Eckstein said. "If you watch the style of game I play, I'll give you everything I have. I do take a lot of pride in defense and I know this past year wasn't my best performance. But if you look at years [prior to 2007], I think that's definitely what I expect of myself for the upcoming season."
While adding Eckstein forces McDonald to the bench, Ricciardi noted that McDonald may still start on days when a pitcher like ace Roy Halladay is on the hill. If Eckstein isn't able to bounce back from his subpar showing on defense, there's also a chance that McDonald will gain more playing time -- similar to his situation last year with Royce Clayton.
"This just means that John will take a lesser role," Ricciardi said. "I don't think you'll see John just sitting on the bench. It's conceivable that when we have certain guys on the mound who are groundball pitchers, Johnny may get the nod. I think we'll utilitize him to the best of our ability to help us take advantage of what he is -- a very good defensive player."
The signing does create questions about the status of Johnson, who was expected to return as Toronto's leadoff man. After Johnson led American League tablesetters with a .390 on-base percentage in 2006, the left fielder struggled in an injury-marred season in 2007, sitting out three months after undergoing major back surgery in April.
Ricciardi said that Johnson, who hit .236 with a .305 on-base percentage in 79 games last season, could slot into the lineup's second spot on days when Eckstein leads off against left-handers. Against right-handers, left-handed-hitting first baseman Lyle Overbay could bat second for Toronto.
"It just gives us flexibility with our lineup," Ricciardi said about adding Eckstein. "He handles the bat really well and is a leadoff guy. He's always been a leadoff guy. That's something we really don't have -- outside of Reed."
There's also a chance Toronto may explore what trade value Johnson might have, considering outfield prospect Adam Lind could be ready for a regular role with the Jays.
McDonald will resume his role as a reserve infielder for the Blue Jays, who also acquired utilityman Marco Scutaro in a trade with the A's earlier this offseason. Last year, Toronto brought in Clayton as the starting shortstop, but he lost his job to McDonald and was released in August.
Since Alex Gonzalez appeared in 153 games for the Blue Jays in 2001, the club has cycled through 16 different shortstops. After taking over as the Blue Jays general manager in 2001, Ricciardi used his first Draft selection on shortstop Russ Adams during the first round of the '02 First-Year Player Draft.
Adams quickly climbed the organizational ladder and became Toronto's starter at the position in 2005. Since then, various issues have sent Adams back to the Minor Leagues. Ricciardi also selected Aaron Hill as a shortstop in the opening round of the 2003 Draft, but Hill has since taken over as the Blue Jays' everday second baseman.