Devon Travis is the Blue Jays’ last vestige of the Roy Halladay trade
Once upon a time in a baseball galaxy not so long ago where leadoff hitters were a standardized commodity, both quantifiably measured and sabermetrically justified, a neophyte franchise with blue feathers and a slight inferiority complex north of the border began a frantic search for a Jedi master to spearhead their contending lineup.
In four decades of Toronto Blue Jays lineup cards, fans have enjoyed the pleasure of watching bona fide prototypical ‘top of the order’ talent and have generally taken it for granted. These were galloping sentinels of speed and hardy masters of contact who aspired to set the first inning table using the ancient lost art of the bunt – impact names like Tony Fernandez, Devon White, Shannon Stewart and Junior Felix. Ok, perhaps I’m reminiscing about one particular weekend in 1989 with that last one. But not surprisingly, many of these former Jays rank right at the top of the Blue Jays franchise record books.
The 2016 season has offered its share of intrigue as the latest edition struggles mightily to find an optimal solution to this hotly debated quagmire. Early spring training rumours included the prospect of moving Michael Saunders, Troy Tulowitzki, Ezequiel Carrera, and even Russell Martin to the top of the order. Initially, Kevin Pillar seemed the obvious candidate given his incumbency (and popularity) from the previous year of superman heroics, but he’s failed miserably this year – both in making regular contact or drawing a timely walk – as evidenced by his gruesome .292 on-base percentage.
The former MVP of the Midwest League made his mark in spring training last year and was immediately dubbed the team’s starting second baseman by the end of March, with MLB scouts ranking him as the 6th best second base prospect in the game.
Jose Bautista, in a most utilitarian and truly bizarre manner, was deployed in an unorthodox fashion and would likely still be doing his out-of-position-in-the-lineup-dance if not for his maddening inability to stay healthy. He also introduced us to an infrequent and little known injury aptly classified as “turf toe” – a condition which, in his case, also resulted in a secondary injury caused by “et mutus rusticitas” – traditionally known for hurting one’s free agency monetary ambitions while leaving fans highly irritated at their television screens.
What emerged through the ashes of a sputtering offense in April and May was a beautiful experiment which coincided nicely with the return of Devon Travis – a 13th round Detroit Tiger draft pick in 2012, who was acquired for the much maligned Anthony Gose in 2014. Originally part of the Roy Oswalt deal which sent two prospects and J.A. Happ (!) from the Phillies in exchange for the Houston ace, what made this transaction particularly noteworthy was the fact that Gose was flipped for Brett Wallace. In other words, Travis is the last vestige of the Roy Halladay trade which also featured Travis d’Arnaud and Kyle Drabek. All five foot nine inches of electric hair and limitless enthusiasm which found him hitting 9th, 8th, 6th, 2nd, and eventually straight to his rightful place atop this lineup.
The former MVP of the Midwest League made his mark in spring training last year and was immediately dubbed the team’s starting second baseman by the end of March, with MLB scouts ranking him as the 6th best second base prospect in the game. Fans were tickled pink when he was named the American League Rookie of the Month in April and blew out of the gate with an astonishing .325/.393/.625 performance alongside 6 home runs and 19 RBI. He was the talk of the town and became the apple of the Anthopoulos eye at the time of his acquisition.
Then came the season-ending shoulder injury in May on a routine grounder that he must have made thousands of times throughout his fledgling career. His left shoulder required extensive surgery to correct a condition known as os acromiale which required screws to stabilize his bone joint followed by a 4-6 month convalescence. Staunchly brave and hopeful on the outside, but crestfallen and dour on the inside in nearly every televised interview which followed. For this wasn’t the kind of adversity he craved, and with the added depth of infielders Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins, most baseball publications were quick to write off the Florida native and his lone stellar month of baseball supremacy.
It was especially devastating news considering the timing and severity of the injury, and even though the Travis-less Blue Jays rallied in the second half to win the divison outright, there was no doubting his presence was sorely missed during the playoff series against the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals. Goins hit .139 in the playoffs. Travis wasn’t just missed – could he also have been the tonic necessary for the Blue Jays to potentially overcome the eventual World Series champs?
And that brings us all the way to July 26th of this year, at home against the San Diego Padres, nearly a full 13 months after he was forced to agonizingly watch the rest of the regular season and playoffs from the sidelines, newly installed front-of-the-order Devon Travis finally reached the promised land of role destiny and fan adulation. Against former Blue Jay and stalwart journeyman Carlos Villanueva, over 40,000 spectators were left breathless as the diminutive second baseman endured a 14-pitch confrontation which ended in a key walk – and then scored the winning run on a wild pitch using only his instincts to guide him. A truly satisfying come-from-behind victory in the bottom of the 12th inning for a player who was in absolute limbo only a few short months earlier.
There was no doubting that his presence was sorely missed during the playoff series against Texas and Kansas City. Could he have been the tonic necessary to potentially overcome the eventual World Series Champions?
With his homage to Carlton Fisk on the 13th pitch that narrowly missed the foul pole, Travis demonstrated an uncanny knack for fighting off pitches in all quadrants of the strike zone. He fouled off low pitches, high pitches, off-speed outside junk, inner busting fastballs. Each time it looked as if he might be flummoxed or overmatched, he compensated. Every time Villanueva tried to put him away, Devon refused and pushed back with a quality swing fighting off a quality pitch. It was as disciplined an exposition of plate coverage that you simply don’t see very much with this team considering more than half the lineup is on track for over 100 strikeouts individually.
I recently compared his offensive tools and center-of-gravity batting stance to a favourite player of mine during the 80’s and 90’s – a stout, doggedly defiant batsman with terrific plate discipline who challenged pitchers at every turn and went deep into every count. And while I don’t necessarily expect Travis to be half the player Kirby Puckett was, I have a sneaking suspicion that the former is well aware of the latter’s American League exploits. Kirby was a catalyst for the ages – situational hitting, sacrificing, bunting, and driving the ball while leading by example and winning championships (1987, 1991), and yet perennially underestimated for being too slow and too stocky in an era which embraced cookie cutter hitting archetypes.
One thing is certain – the future is bright and exciting for Travis. He has the adoration of teammates, the trust of management, and the growing respect of a fan base thrilled to have a real ace in the hole who might make them remember Roy Halladay for all the right reasons. Oh, and the Force is probably with him – a 2.4 WAR in 62 games which has many pundits and media outlets believing in him again as both a serious player and a respected leadoff hitter.