108: Colabello, Smoak trying to be answer to ... Who's on first?



Tyler King
Canadian Baseball Network

Spring Training is supposed to be the time where all those burning off-season questions are answered.  And even though the Blue Jays have only played six games (and one split-squad contest), some of the main story lines are already beginning to become a lot less suspenseful.

Sure, Michael Saunders may have always had the edge over Dalton Pompey to break camp as the team’s starting left fielder, but I doubt anyone could have predicted that Saunders would be hitting .455 with three home runs and eight RBI in just 11 spring at-bats. 

He looks nothing like the guy who only played nine games last season because of a knee injury. If Saunders stays healthy (“Our Father, who art in heaven ...”) it’s hard to imagine Pompey having much of a chance.

One other story fans have been following closely all off-season is whether a jacked up Aaron Sanchez can indeed snatch the fifth starter spot, not to mention what sort of effect adding 25 pounds of muscle might have on his game. 

Well not only does it physically look like he spent his summer hanging out with Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, but his fastball has already touched 98 MPH on several occasions. He’s thrown more innings (five) than any other Jays pitcher, which suggests that the team is consciously stretching him out, hopefully for the rotation.

Sanchez given up eight hits and two earned runs over those five innings, however he’s also logged six strikeouts. Not to put any pressure on the 23-year-old, but at this point it looks like it’s his spot to lose ...

Now if only all story lines were so obvious.

Despite the added clarity in left field (although still early) and Sanchez’s potential to start (also early), there remains one big question that might actually becoming more complicated rather than clearer. And no I’m not talking about Jose Bautista and his big fat contract negotiations.

I’m talking about who plays first base.


Last season I talked a lot about the platoon situation that existed (for parts of the year) between Chris Colabello and Justin Smoak.

I’ve been fascinated by this matchup mostly because I felt that a career year for Colabello (in 2015) was being misused, if not at times totally wasted. Or perhaps I’m a sucker for the underdog (Colabello) and became bitter because of my high-expectations for Smoak. However you feel about the situation, the two don’t appear to be giving any ground this spring.

In 2015, when Colabello wasn’t being fed to the wolves out in left-field (a failed experiment as far as defense goes) he spent the rest of his time at first. He played 34 games at first last season (101 games total), while Smoak played 110 of his 114 games there. 

It’s pretty tough to argue who swung the better bat.

Smoak hit .226/.299/.470 last season with 18 home runs. Sure the 18 dingers look nice, but the beginning of that slash line is just, well, terrible. 

Meanwhile, a largely unknown Colabello surprised everyone by hitting .321/.367/.520 with 15 homers ...

Like I said, you don’t need a baseball analyst (which I promise you I am not) to tell you who had the better offensive season, especially when the biggest knock on both of those guys was the exact same thing - they strikeout ALOT. 

Colabello struck-out 96 times and drew only 22 walks in 360 plate appearances; Smoak struck-out 86 times while taking 29 free passes in 328 plate appearances.

Looking back at those numbers, the fact that Smoak got into so many games last year seems rather surprising. Yes, the Blue Jays were desperately short on left-handed bats and therefore Smoak saw many of the opposition’s right-handers, but even when you look at their splits you’re still left thinking “what the hell, Gibby?”

In 261 plate appearances against right-handers, Colabello hit .326/.368/.500 with eight home runs. He actually had better numbers against righties than he did against lefties.

Whereas Smoak hit .222/.302/.455 against right handed pitchers. Oddly enough he faired better against lefties so good luck figuring this game out guys.

Again, I know that everyone talks about Smoak’s defence like the guy’s the second coming or something, but there is no reason to be worried about Colabello’s defence given what he did last year. And to be clear, I’m taking about the Chris Colabello who played first base, not the one who played left field ... ‘cause there’s a BIG difference. 

Smoak’s fielding percentage at first base last season was .994, the same as the league average at that position. Colabello’s fielding percentage at 1B was .996, two points higher than the league average. Now I do still believe that Smoak is the better defender in the long-run, but think about what the team may have been sacrificing at the plate.

(Seriously, scroll up and look.)

Unless Gibby is planning another science project in the outfield, how Colabello and Smoak perform in spring training will surely have a bearing on the time they get at first base in 2016.

So far they’ve both had very good starts to their spring. 

As of Monday, Colabello has hit .333/.385/.417 in 12 at-bats (he also has one home run but it came in a split-squad game). Smoak has hit .333/.455/1.111 with two home runs in nine spring at-bats. All three of Smoak’s hits have gone for extra-bases.

Yes, it’s very early. And yes, it’s also very promising to have those both guys playing so well. But in order to remain somewhat objective allow me to put this all in perspective: Darwin Barney is hitting .545, so take these spring numbers with a grain of salt.

However, if they both keep this up Gibby is going to have some tough decisions to make. Then again, if they both keep this up, who cares!



One other thing on spring training: 

How unreal is Troy Tulowitzki’s new leg-kick? 

By the end of the season you may watch the Jays go through the lineup and think they have nine guys named Donaldson, not that I’m complaining. (Tulo hit a home run to left in his first spring at-bat using that newly added Donaldson-esque leg-kick.)

More importantly, the fact that Tulo is still willing to tinker and improve his swing - even though he hit .340 just two years ago and has had multiple 30 home run seasons - says a lot about him as a player. 

Look for him to emerge as a leader in 2016.


Follow Tyler and #Section 108 on twitter: @tylerjoseph108

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