For the last four Spring Training camps, the Blue Jays have run the same movie on repeat. When it comes to their centre field position, Kevin Pillar has been firmly entrenched as their star centre fielder since April of 2015.
Despite numerous candidates and ample opportunities to overtake him, nobody has dethroned Pillar.
Heck, we’ve seen this movie before with a completely different cast of characters on the same team. Remember the spring of 2013 when Anthony Gose was supposed to challenge Colby Rasmus for the centre field job? Completely different players, but similar parallels between a potential brewing battle in centre field.
Enter Anthony Alford. It may have come a few years late, but Alford’s Spring Training coming-out party has officially arrived. As late, nobody is hotter at the plate than Alford, who added yet another home run to his Grapefruit League tally. Make that four dingers in four games.
If this were 2017 or last year’s Spring Training, he might have a leg up as the starting centre fielder for the Blue Jays. Much like Dalton Pompey, Alford has some work to do if he wants to make the club’s Opening Day roster.
It’s been a long and gruelling road for Alford. For years he’s been hyped as the heir apparent to Pillar in centre field, but due to injuries and some tough stretches in the minor leagues, Alford hasn’t put it all together to claim an everyday outfield spot.
Of all the young outfielders in camp, he’s the most intriguing to watch. Pompey himself has a bit of a similar storyline (mired by injuries the last few years), but Alford’s prospect pedigree was much higher. For three straight years, Alford ranked within the top 60 players in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect list.
At 24-years-old, injuries have stunted his development, but there’s still plenty of time for him to develop into a contributor for the Blue Jays. Whether that’s as a starting outfielder or a bench bat is a completely different story.
Alford’s coming-out party in Spring Training just so happens to coincide with a particularly awful spring for Pillar. Keep in mind, these are Spring Training games we’re talking about here, but Pillar is slashing .120/.214/.280 with two extra-base hits in nine games. Alford, however, owns a slash line of .333/.391/.952 with five extra-base hits in nine games.
As a six-year veteran, Pillar will be given the benefit of the doubt. Alford has yet to prove he can stay healthy enough to garner a 25-man roster spot … but it seems like his time is coming.
One of the reasons why the Blue Jays have employed Pillar as their starting centre fielder for the last four years is nobody else has played well enough to steal the job from him. Whether it’s Pompey, Alford, no one has challenged Pillar for that spot in close to four years.
Once the Jays pulled the plug on the Pompey experiment in 2015, Pillar took the reins and never looked back. For four seasons, he’s never had to look over his shoulder to see which outfielders are rocketing up the depth chart.
This year may finally be the year where he finally relents the spot to someone else.
There’s nothing that droves of Blue Jays fans would love more than to see Alford win the starting centre field job from Pillar. It’s not that Pillar doesn’t offer value — he’s durable and plays plus-defense — but his ceiling as an offensive centre fielder is rather low. The younger legs, speed and power of Alford is an incredibly intriguing option for the Blue Jays.
Even if Pillar continues to hit below the Mendoza line, unless he’s sidelined by an injury, he’ll begin the 2019 season at centre field. Where Alford could make a play is as the team’s fourth outfielder. Earlier this week, I thought Pompey was a dark horse to snatch that spot from someone like Billy McKinney, but the odds-on favourite might be Alford now.
Ideally, the Blue Jays want someone like Alford playing every day, which would be difficult with a veteran-laden outfield alignment such as the Blue Jays’. However, listening to Charlie Montoyo’s “everybody plays” comments as of late, the Jays’ fourth outfielder may see increased playing time where they ordinarily wouldn’t.
The clearest path for Alford to make the team is through left field. He’s a centre fielder by trade, but the floor for the candidates in left field (as in centre) is pretty low. Alford could theoretically play his way onto the Opening Day roster through left field much easier than centre field.
The other thing is, despite Pillar entering his seventh season in the big leagues, Montoyo isn’t beholden to run Pillar out there no matter what. In years past, even after Pillar went through his yearly “fall off a cliff after OPS’ing .800+ into mid-May”, there were no suitable replacements in the farm system.
Where someone like John Gibbons might be inclined to chisel Pillar’s name into the lineup for 162 games, I’m not so sure Montoyo will be as loyal to a player of that ilk … especially if they’re underperforming and there’s a better option on the 25-man roster or in the minors.
The opportunity for someone like Alford (or Pompey) is ripe for the taking. This year, more than ever, it feels like Pillar isn’t quite as entrenched with the long-term plans for this team. With two years of team control remaining and a bevy of outfielders in the minors, his time with the Blue Jays may be nearing an end.
It doesn’t make sense to give Alford the keys to centre field right out of the gate, but after watching what he’s done thus far in Spring Training, it’s a wonder how he hasn’t won the job already.