Friday, February 27, 2015
Hello, Mr. Thompson
There exists a particularly tortured analogy between the current Blue Jays outfield situation and a famous Biblical tale (read obtusely and gleaned from Wikipedia.) A failure to heed the warnings of angels resulted in a woman turning into a pillar of salt, a suboptimal outcome for a once-living creature.
Sending an oft-injured player to do drills at a trash facility isn’t exactly disobeying the warnings of angels but it is certainly a dangerous game, one that leaves the Toronto Blue Jays facing the proposition of Kevin Pillar spending half the season starting in their outfield. Is the prospect of handing a starting job to a non-prospect as bleak as it feels?
Pillar elicits a curious kind of antipathy from some corners of Blue Jays fandom. Despite being a hard-nosed player who turned himself from a late-round pick to a guy drawing big league checks regularly, he never quite earned the lovable underdog feelings that keep his type afloat. Between myth and dismissal sits reality: an unsexy but competent player who fields well enough and possess a knack for barreling baseballs, a coveted skill in this the era of the whiff.
As guilty of casting Pillar aside as anyone, I realize that if my first look at Kevin Pillar came wearing a jersey reading “Cardinals” instead of “Blue Jays”, I’d hold a completely him in a different regard. Were Pillar diving around the outfield grass and hitting line drives in October, one of a long list of Cardinals player development success stories told lovingly against a postseason backdrop by Joe Buck, I’d love him. An underwhelming athlete with keen bat-to-ball skills who is also a little old by prospect standards? Where do I sign?!?
But saddle him with royal blue baggage and he’s a disappointment, another example of a team incapable of developing the stars a role player like Pillar complements so well. The Cardinals Way creates an assembly line of line drive hitters in an endless loop. Toronto is built under the assumption that the batters box is scoring position and the rest sorts itself out in time. Pillar fits one model but not the other, noticeable by what he doesn’t do in one city, hypothetically celebrated for what he does in another.
The problem with Pillar is what you see is what you get. Going back to read older scouting reports of the Jays’ outfielder, they could have been written yesterday or in 2012. There’s no mystery, no chance for breakout or delivering more than his modest skills and outsized work ethic offer. This shouldn’t be a condemnation but the lack of sex appeal coupled with an inability to deliver big league results and bouts of looking completely overmatched make it easy to lose confidence in Pillar. The bar can’t be much lower for any other warm body to soar over with the help of some prospect helium.
Trying to attach any meaning the numbers Pillar put up across his big league stints is dangerous for two reasons. One, they are largely bad and you will feel awful for doing it. Secondly, sifting through the bad to find the nuggets of good does everybody a disservice. Yes, he was better in September - he even drew a few walks! But a solid trip around the league, where reliable advanced scouting reports are built and adjustments at the big league level happen in real time, that tells the true tale. For better or worse, the slate should be blank.
The idea of Pillar playing a lot between now and July shouldn’t make anyone react the way everyone reacted. The difference between Pillar and Saunders is certainly less than a win over half a season. It doesn’t feel the same because of Saunders upside -- which he had ample time to discover and the belief in which the Mariners abandoned. But the season isn’t over today because Pillar gets thrust into a more prominent role. Good teams with great offenses can absorb this downgrade.
The Blue Jays are in tough in the American League East because this problem, this lack of outfield depth, the polar opposite of the situation in Boston. The Red Sox are lousy with outfielders and options, as their commitment to scoring runs above all else gives them flexibility when it comes to their army of backend starters. They’re better positioned should an injury take down Hanley Ramirez or Shane Victorino or should Jackie Bradley Jr. prove he simply can’t cut it.
The Jays don’t have this luxury. Looking at the free agent pool and the options on-hand, the Blue Jays don’t have much of a choice: It’s time to move ahead with Pillar. There’s no looking back now.