Pick your surprise Moose special: Pillar? Colabello? Estrada?

By Bob Elliott

Blue Jays scout Wilbur (Moose) Johnson use to talk about his team each spring and after assessing the 40-man roster he would always, always add:

“And don’t forget, someone will surprise everyone, he’ll come out of nowhere, make the team and contribute,” Johnson would say each spring whether watching in Dunedin, Lakeland or Clearwater.

And we’d always ask “well, who do you think it is?”

Johnson would answer the same “well, if I knew and I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise would it?”
Some surprises on previous post-season Jays teams included:

Tom Henke, claimed in the compensation free agent draft from the Texas Rangers, promoted at the end of July and was the closer on the 1985 Blue Jays.

Outfielder Junior Felix, who became a regular at age 21 in 1989.

Reliever Mike Timlin made his mark as a rookie with the 1991 Jays pitching over 100 innings in relief.

Infielder Jeff Kent emerged the next year allowing the Jays to deal him for David Cone.

And in 1993 reliever Danny Cox was signed pitching over 80 innings, most of any reliever that season, in a supporting role for Duane Ward after Henke departed to the Rangers as a free agent. 

And this year?

Who would be Johnson’s pick as his old team heads into Game 5 of the best-of-five American League Division Series against the Rangers at 4:07 Wednesday afternoon at the Rogers Centre?

Well, he’d have a few candidates.   

You figured back in February that centre fielder Kevin Pillar would turn into one part Jim Edmonds and one part Lenny Dykstra? 

Pillar is the guy with skin ripped off his knees and his elbows from diving in, left, right or climbing up and over the wall, or crashing into it on his left or right.

The way general manager Alex Anthopoulos and his staff drew it up Michael Saunders, acquired from the Seattle Mariners for lefty J.A. Happ, was going to play left and Mississauga’s own Dalton Pompey, who had an impressive September in 2014, would be the every day centre fielder.

Saunders was felled by a sprinkler head in the Dunedin parks and recreation continued attempts to keep the Jays in town, made nine starts and then was forced to shut it down. Pompey was demoted after one month.

Pillar went from a projected back-up role, to being the left fielder to THE centre fielder.

And with Pillar in centre Chris Colabello, Danny Valencia and Ezequiel Carrera spent time in left field until Ben Revere arrived at the non-waiver trade deadline July 31.

Pillar made 155 starts in all -- 139 in centre, 13 in left and three in right. He played in 158 games, Thanks to his out-STAND-ing defence the good folks at baseball-reference Pillar’s WAR (5.2) is second on the Jays behind Josh Donaldson (8.8) and ahead of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. 

Pillar is more than a pretty glove. His off-season workouts increased his speed (25-for-29) stealing. He hit 31 doubles, 12 homers, with 56 RBIs, .278 average and a .713 OPS.

Or as surprises go is Colabello your choice?

The Jays watched him go 8-for-12 in three games with four doubles and five RBIs in Minneapolis last April of 2014. Colabello hit .667 for the series two Twins wins, and a 1.714 OPS.

When the Twins put Colabello on waivers Dec. 8, the Jays claimed him. He started this season at triple-A Buffalo and made his Jays debut May 5. 

While not a left fielder Colabello his best position is the batter’s box. 

At the end of May he was hitting .368. People said he wouldn’t be able to keep it up.

At the end of June he owned a .335 average. His own father said he wouldn’t maintain the pace.

At the end of July he was down to .312. Baseball people said he would not maintain it.   

And by the final day of August he was hitting .324.

He kept it up hitting .321 with 19 doubles, 15 homers, 54 RBIs and an .886 OPS.

Or maybe your choice is right-hander Marco Estrada, who pitching coach Pete Walker has pitching up in the zone more and he held opponents to the lowest batting average in the American League. This from a guy who allowed the most homers in the National League last year.

Besides going 13-8 with a 3.37 ERA he held opposing hitter to a .203 average. He allowed 24 doubles, 24 homers and a .633 OPS.

Or maybe you like Dioner Navarro, who lost his starting job to Russell Martin again, but not his passion for soccer or the Jays.

Or Aaron Sanchez, a starter and now in the bullpen.

Or Roberto Osuna who was at class-A Dunedin a year ago on his way to his 23-inning season. He had 23 1/2 the final two months of the regular season.