Before playing the Braves on Tuesday, John Gibbons said, “Kev, you know, he just has that knack and he’s done it before in the minor leagues”.
It’s still very early in the spring with over three weeks to go before opening day, but each March day in Florida will be part of the decision making process once the team goes north. There are plenty of decisions to be made and several battles to play out, and only time will tell what the Blue Jays lineup will look like in 2016.
We know a few things for sure, namely that the likes of reigning MVP Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Troy Tulowitzki will all land somewhere in the middle of the order. The offseason trade of Ben Revere has also left the Blue Jays without a clear lead off candidate, and so far the options appear to be second year starter Kevin Pillar and Canadian left fielder Michael Saunders.
While many writers have made arguments for Tulowitzki to lead off, the reality is that Gibbons and the Jays seem to be set on Tulo hitting further down the lineup. Meanwhile, Pillar has been openly campaigning for an opportunity in the role, and has already once proven us wrong about his ceiling at the big league level. Pillar was even quoted earlier in the offseason saying, “To be honest with you, I see myself as a great leadoff hitter”.
Gibbons seems to agree with Pillar, at least early on in the spring. Before playing the Braves on Tuesday, the skipper said, “Kev, you know, he just has that knack and he’s done it before in the minor leagues”.
He also laid out a portion of the argument against Pillar hitting at the top of the order saying, “he doesn’t draw many walks, he’s kind of aggressive. But some guys out there, that type of hitter, have been very successful in the lead off spot”.
But if not Pillar, then who? Taking a quick look at the Blue Jays OBP leaders in 2015, Pillar comes in at 7th on the team, 8th when you include Tulowitzki for qualifying hitters. First on the list is Bautista, followed unsurprisingly by Encarnacion and Donaldson. At 4th was Chris Colabello, who isn’t going to get consideration. Russell Martin at 5th, Ryan Goins at 6th, who narrowly beat out Pillar’s .314 with a equally uninspiring .318 mark. As stated above, there isn’t an obvious candidate in the bunch, which is why Pillar will get a long look this spring.
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When asked on Tuesday, Pillar continued to express confidence in his ability to handle the role. He also rightly pointed out that the leadoff hitter is only guaranteed to start an inning once.
“You lead off for only the first at bat of the game,” he told the National Post, “and after that, you know, it’s like anything else”.
One argument that has been disputed in baseball circles and social media is that batters will see better pitches to hit slotted ahead of elite hitters like Donaldson and the Jays’ version of Murderer’s Row. Pillar seems to agree.
“With these guys hitting behind me I’m going to be the guy they’re going to attack and, you know, that’s an area I’m comfortable being in”.
For a second-year starter, it’s exactly what the Blue Jays want to hear. Pillar has already proven doubters wrong in his first year as a starter, contributing gold glove calibre defence, a respectable .278 average, to go with 12 home runs and 25 steals. On a team ripe with all-stars, Pillar quietly finished 2nd amongst in WAR, albeit with a great contribution on defence. There really is no reason to count him out when he puts his mind to a challenge.
Whoever the Blue Jays decide to put at the top of the order could ultimately end of being a placeholder for Devon Travis, but don’t expect Pillar to treat the situation like that. He proved he’s willing to throw his body into his work last season, and there’s no reason to expect he’ll give Jays’ fans anything less than 110% again in 2016.