How does Kevin Pillar impact the return of Michael Saunders?


When the Toronto Blue Jays lost Michael Saunders to a knee injury in Spring Training, the door was left open for Kevin Pillar to finally run with a starting role.  Through the first nine games, he’s kicked in that door and shattered the doorframe.

Kevin Pillar has been the Toronto Blue Jays most valuable all-around player and helped lead the team to a 5-4 start despite the sluggish debuts from Jose Bautista and Russell Martin.  Pillar is hitting .314 with 8 runs scored, 3 doubles and a home run.  It’s in the field, however that the 26-year old is demanding the spotlight.

While the original hope was for Pillar to keep the left field position above water until the return of Michael Saunders, who came over from Seattle in the J.A. Happ deal this past offseason, he’s making an undeniable case for the starter’s job long-term.  This presents the Blue Jays with a rare issue: a good problem.  While the small sample size should still be viewed critically, John Gibbons will soon have four starting outfielders, and he may need to get creative with his lineups.

Gibbons naming an outright starter with one clear backup in this situation seems unlikely.  Jose Bautista remains the face of the franchise in right field, but Pillar and Saunders will become involved with Dalton Pompey in a competition for two spots.  The initial temptation here would be to platoon the hitters across both positions, but none of the three feature career splits that are overwhelming from one side of the dish.

I have further issues with strictly platooning, as well, because Kevin Pillar is a player who seems to thrive under certainty.  He excels in a starting role where he can come to the ballpark every day and start, which he did across all levels in the Minor Leagues, but presses often and becomes unnatural at the plate when he is used infrequently.

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There is no perfect situation, either, because despite Dalton Pompey’s relatively slow start to the season, the Blue Jays should not stray too far off course with the rookie centre fielder.  Patience could be key with Pompey, especially given the hard contact he has been making lately.

In the end, Gibbons’ decision will be a tangled hybrid of platooning and the “hot hand”.  Toronto will benefit from giving Saunders a slow and eased return to big league pitching, and can be certain that his timing clicks before calling him up.  Saunders, Pillar and Pompey could man the outfield as a trio at times, too, giving Jose Bautista a game at DH to keep his legs fresh.

Speaking of legs, having all three on the roster will soon give Toronto a speed threat off the bench.  With Steven Tolleson, Danny Valencia and Dioner Navarro the typical pinch-running options, the Blue Jays desperately need a weapon for the late-innings.  Regardless of the makeup of this outfield, the return of Saunders is beneficial to this ball club and will create a deeper, multi-dimensional team.

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