An elite top of the lineup hitter, equipped with all the necessary tools, is becoming increasingly difficult to find. Speed, the ability to see pitches, get on base and hit for contact are skill-sets managers look for when choosing the player who will dig their cleats into the clean batters box. Sometimes, managers have to settle for two of these tools, sometimes just one.
The Blue Jays are not the only team who will have a troublesome time finding a player who can produce at the top of the lineup, but they are the club I will be focusing this piece on.
Manager John Gibbons has come out and said that Pillar may be the favorite, and has had him leading off for the majority of spring training. After keeping his strikeouts in check during the second half of the 2015 season (56 in the first half to 29 post All-Star break), one could argue that Pillar owns the inside track to take over the top spot. But are those numbers enough? While he is the fastest of the three, stealing 25 bases last year, he did lack plate discipline despite watching his strikeout numbers fall, walking just 28 times in 628 plate appearances. The defensive gem displayed fantastic upside last year when he made contact, though, slashing .278/.314/.399, his best season in MLB to date. The .314 OBP is a concerning factor when looking to get on base for the power hungry lineup behind him. His 2016 spring training numbers have also been sub-par, hitting just .188.
Saunders is the next candidate on Gibbons’ list. A 2015 season riddled with injuries found the left-fielder making just 36 plate appearances. Although he is enjoying a positive spring training, hitting .350 with three home runs, already out producing himself from the previous season, it may be difficult to see him taking over as the leadoff man in the opening month of the upcoming campaign.
It’s time to add a new name into the mix, Chris Colabello.
The “Italian Stallion” is coming off the best season of his three-year career. After failing to nail down a full-time role with the Minnesota Twins, and playing in the Independent League, Colabello has finally found himself a home, producing on the top offense in baseball.
He has shown tremendous ability to get on base both last year and in spring training thus far. Slashing a line of .321/.367/.520 along with 15 home runs in 2015 should, at least, put him in the discussion for the leadoff spot in Toronto. His .367 OBP was higher than what both Pillar and Saunders have been able to generate in their entire careers. Colabello has also shown balance when facing left and right-handed pitchers, hitting .308 against the former and .326 against the latter during the 2015 campaign, while establishing patience at the plate. He drew 22 free passes last year, which is six less than Pillar, but with 268 less plate appearances. Colabello is currently hitting .353 this spring.
He is far from the prototypical leadoff hitter. He lacks speed, and I know having a corner infielder lead off is virtually unheard of, but his capability of putting the ball in play puts him head and shoulders above the competition. With a team that notched 232 home runs last year, hitting in front of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki, one can argue that consistency is of greater value than speed for this team. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) was an incredible .411 in 2015, and .428 against right-handed pitchers. Colabello was one of the most consistent contact hitters the Blue Jays had just a season ago. He uses the entire field and has little to no holes in his swing. If Toronto is looking for someone that can produce and set the stage for the most prolific power lineup in baseball, then Colabello may, eventually, see himself at the top of the lineup. It would be interesting to see what he could do with more plate appearances.
Regardless of where he ends up, expect number 15 to play a vital role in getting the Jays back into the postseason.