Could Chris Colabello Be More Than Expected for Blue Jays?
Baseball readers love a feel-good story. The Kole Calhoun-style “nobody believed in me but I never gave up” narrative resonates so strongly that sometimes we writers are guilty of trying too hard to find it.
But here is the Colabello story anyway.
His father was a pitcher in the Italian league, which is also where Chris started. Chris went undrafted both out of high school and college, but he refused to give up on baseball, joining the Worchester Tornadoes of the Canadian-American Association (an independent league). He played in that league for 7 years, amassing a .317/.390/.514 slash line and being voted the top player in independent baseball in 2011 by Baseball America. His 699 career hits at Worchester make him the Can-Am league’s all-time leader in that category.
In 2012, Minnesota signed him to a minor league contract and sent him to the New Britain Rock Cats, their AA affiliate. Chris did well, slashing .284/.358/.478. His .836 OPS was 6th best in the league, and his 19 home runs were tied for 5th best. But Chris was 28 years old, a full 3.6 years higher than league average, so his 2012 performance was largely discounted.
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In 2013, he was promoted to Rochester in the International League (AAA), where he again excelled. He led that league in average (.352), OBP (.427), slugging (.639), and was 6th in HR (24) despite having over 100 fewer PAs than most of the players ahead of him. He was called up to the Twins in May, and had a total of 181 PAs that year, but struggled in the majors with a .194/.287/.344 line and a wRC+ of 76.
In 2014, he started the season with a bang, with a 134 wRC+ in April. But he was hit on the thumb by a Grant Balfour pitch on April 23, resulting in nerve damage, pain and an inability to swing the bat. Having spent so long to get a chance in the majors, Colabello was not about to go on the DL. He made what in retrospect was a poor decision – he decided to ignore his doctor’s recommendation (rest) and to continue to play. The results were not surprising. His wRC+ plummeted to -2 in May, resulting in a demotion to Rochester. He split the remainder of 2014 between Minnesota and Rochester, continuing to play through the pain and continuing to underperform.
Colabello was waived by the Twins in the 2014-15 offseason, and claimed by the Jays on December 8th. At that time, not much was expected of Colabello other than providing competition for Justin Smoak at 1B and providing emergency depth at OF and 1B in Buffalo.
Which brings us to 2015.
With his thumb now fully recovered, Chris started the season in Buffalo with a .337/.421/.554 line, a 184 wRC+, and April IL Player of the Month honours. Since being called up to the Jays to spell a still-hurting Michael Saunders Chris has exploded at the plate (in an admittedly very small sample size). Which begs the question – what happens when Saunders and Bautista are healthy?
Colabello is not a particularly good defensive OF. His lifetime UZR/150 in the majors is -51 – clearly distorted by the small sample, but a negative value is probably fair given his skills. But his mlb UZR/150 at 1B is 1.8 – better than average, and better than Justin Smoak’s lifetime rate of 0.4. And Colabello is unusual in that he bats right-handed but has hit better against right-handed pitchers than lefties, both in the majors and in the minors. This makes him an ideal platoon partner for Danny Valencia, who mashes lefties but struggles against RHP.
The bottom line? Colabello has excelled at every level up to now. It is clearly too early to say that he has mlb-level talent. But it is also too early to say that he does not. And a righty-mashing, above-average-defensively, under-team-control-though-2019 1B who can also play the outfield in a pinch would fit the Jays’ wish list very nicely.
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