Blue Jays Spring Training: 4 Key Roster Battles

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Sep 27, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Kevin Pillar (11) slides home past Baltimore Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph (36) to score from an RBI double hit Blue Jays second base Steve Tolleson (not in picture) in the third inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

The Fourth Outfielder:

After the Michael Saunder’s injury was initially diagnosed as keeping him out until the All-Star break, this roster spot battle was as clear as mud. Thankfully, with Saunders opting for a procedure that will enable him to return in late-April, the battle for the fourth outfielder spot is a lot easier make to sense of. Keep in mind that whoever wins this spot out of Spring Training will likely be the de facto starting left fielder come Opening Day and could own that spot until Saunders returns (although they could see a fair share of at bats lost to a possible platooning scenario).

The front runner:

Kevin Pillar goes into Spring Training as the front-runner to win the fourth outfielder job by virtue providing the flexibility to play each outfielder spot reasonably well from a defensive perspective (3.2 total outfield UZR and 19.4 UZR/150 in only 281.2 total innings in 2014). In comparison to the other candidates (examined below), Pillar appears to the best defensive outfielder and that alone puts him the lead.

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Pillar even showed some signs of becoming a better hitter in the back-end of the 2014 season and finished the season with a more than respectable .267 batting average. It’s important to note that Pillar hits lefties a lot better than right handed pitchers (.340 wOBA vs. .280) which means that before Michael Saunders returns, Pillar could lose a lot of at bats by being pinch hit for in close-game situations against tough right handed relievers.

However, reserve outfielders need to be good defensively for close games situations and when Pillar moves back into that role it’s a good spot for him. As a good defensive outfielder with the ability to pinch hit well against southpaws and some speed on the base-paths, Pillar is a pretty good option for the Jays as their fourth outfielder.

The competition:

Dayan Viciedo – Although the Jays plan to try Viciedo out at first base, with a strong Spring Training performance he could challenge Kevin Pillar for the fourth outfielder job. With the Chicago White Sox, Viciedo is a career .254 hitter and has posted two 20+ home run seasons in the last 3 years. Clearly, Viciedo does have some power and could add some pop to an already dangerous Jays lineup. The problem is that Viciedo is pathetic defensively, which doesn’t help his cause given that the Jays appear to have a renewed focus on team defence in 2015. Despite his impressive power numbers, he’s posted a career -0.1 WAR, largely due to his poor defence and high strikeout rates/inability to get on base. While Viciedo may get a few at bats early in April in a platoon role that could spread across multiple positions, at this point he appears to be no more than extra outfield depth going into Spring Training.

Chris Dickerson – Another off-season depth signing, Jays fans should hope that the fourth outfielder situation does not require Dickerson’s help. Although by hitting left he would bring some balance to the lineup, at this point in his career, the 32 year older is no more than a replacement level player (if that), who has never posted a WAR greater than 1.7 (2009) or lasted for more than 100 games in the big leagues. Hopefully Dickerson will continue to be a veteran presence in AAA, and no more than an emergency backup for the Jays in 2015.

Note: It’s a shame that Andy Dirks is unhealthy and may not be back in uniform for Spring Training. Dirks has a similar defensive skill-set to Pillar in being able play all three outfielder spots but adds the ability to hit right handed pitting well (.260 bating average with 7 home runs in 2013). Dirks would have battled Pillar throughout Spring Training for the fourth outfielder spot and would also bring some balance to the Jays’ lineup in an overwhelmingly right handed dominant order. When Dirks is healthy he’ll be solid option for the Jays as a fourth outfielder if Pillar struggles early in the year.