Colabello no longer overlooked with Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays expect Chris Colabello to be a key contributor this year after his breakout season in 2015. (Frank Gunn/CP)

The decorative banner hangs over the first-base side concourse at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, up among the players the Toronto Blue Jays have chosen to highlight. Chris Colabello, No. 15, at the ready in the field, is right between Aaron Sanchez and Kevin Pillar, with images of Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Bautista and Russell Martin nearby. The 32-year-old who went undrafted out of both high school and college, and spent seven years in independent ball putting up numbers and waiting for someone to notice, is up there on merit, an overlooked baseball vagabond no more.

“Obviously it’s an honour to have stuff like that done, I think sometimes we take it for granted,” says Colabello one warm spring morning. “But I’d be lying to you if I said that at any point in my life I didn’t have the expectation of it. I don’t mean that in a selfish, greedy or cocky way. I mean that in the sense that I’ve always believed in my abilities, and that the right opportunity would be all I needed. I always used to say I needed someone to open the door a little bit and I’ll come bursting through. If the door is locked it’s hard to get through it. But I believed in my ability to play the game and make adjustments and figure out a way to not only compete, but to be successful.”

Colabello, a waiver claim from the Minnesota Twins the previous December acquired for the triple-A Buffalo Bisons, was certainly successful for the Blue Jays during the 2015 season. A surprise call up May 5, he hit well out of the gate to extend his stay, and never let up in becoming an unexpectedly important contributor for the American League East champions with 15 homers, 54 RBIs and 55 runs in 101 games.

This season, Colabello arrived at spring training poised to get the bulk of the at-bats at first base in a loose platoon with Justin Smoak. His respect among his teammates is such that Donaldson and Bautista make sure he’s mentioned when the menacing middle of the Blue Jays lineup gets discussed. Manager John Gibbons will be counting on him to produce in the back half of baseball’s most productive lineup.

Yet in some corners skepticism and doubt still lurk.

Within baseball’s hidebound scouting and player development systems, Colabello can be seen as a mutt, having been repeatedly rejected at the usual entry points to the game, and passed over despite boffo production outside the affiliated minor-leagues. As he posted his .886 OPS in 360 plate appearances last year, there were those who continually warned of an impending collapse. The numbers shouldn’t be trusted because the sample size wasn’t sufficient, they’d say. The .411 batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, is an unsustainable product of luck and sure to correct. The pedigree simply isn’t there.

Maybe they’re right. Or maybe they’re reluctant to admit a pretty good player slipped through the cracks.

“The hardest thing in the game is to overcome the labels,” says Colabello. “And it’s a game where labels are the most insignificant out of any sport because it’s not a game based solely on athleticism, on running faster than somebody, jumping higher, being a better jump-shooter. It’s based on a cat and mouse game every day between pitcher and hitter, which is why I say your brain is your most valuable asset.

“We’re really good at measuring tools, measuring the tangible – a guy runs a 6.4 60 or a guy throws 97 from the outfield. That’s really easy to defend, and allows you to say this guy’s abilities should allow him to be able to do certain things that other people can’t. If you can combine that with a tremendous mind, a guy that can overcome all the negative in baseball, all the bad things that can happen over the course of a season, you’ve got yourself a Hall of Famer. The hard part is (evaluating) the mind.

“I was always aware that besides my ability to hit, that was always noticeable growing up, I don’t look better than anybody when I field a ground ball, I don’t throw it harder than anybody else, I don’t run faster than anybody else. I’m OK at all those things but they don’t stand out. So you could make the argument I was just another guy, until you watch me over and over and over again.”

The Blue Jays watched him over and over in 2015 and believe in what they saw.

From the moment he was called up, Colabello joined teammates in the clubhouse for extended discussions about hitting, trading advice on approaches for specific pitchers, swing paths and whatever else the topic of the day might be.

Despite limited experience in the outfield, he played 33 games in left field and 13 more in right when the Blue Jays had no better options, shaking off some costly defensive misplays to keep delivering at the plate.

Guiding him through the moments of adversity was this: “It’s not necessarily about excelling in every moment, it’s about understanding what made you not be good in a certain moment that can make you better for the next time.”

A similar mindset and outlook was essential to persist through seven seasons of gruelling bus rides, dodgy accommodations and poor pay for Worcester and Nashua of the independent Can-Am League.

Some of Colabello’s determination comes from his father, Lou, who pitched professionally in Italy for seven years and represented the country at the 1984 Olympics. Taught to never accept failure, the younger Colabello learned to apply past precedents to his decision-making in the batter’s box, his two-strike approach, his ability in the field.

Eventually he became a slave to preparation, identifying his weaknesses and seeking out ways to buttress them.

“Allow your brain to be your best tool,” he says, “because if you do, you’re so much better prepared for situations when they come up.”

Still, Colabello needed doses of encouragement to overcome bitterness at not getting drafted in 2005, the disappointment of getting cut from minor-league camp by the Detroit Tigers in 2006, the lack of meaningful opportunities as he hit .300 season after season in the Can-Am League. Rich Gedman, his manager with Worcester, was pivotal on that front.

“He fooled me into believing that if I just kept moving forward no matter what was going on around me, somebody would have to notice,” says Colabello. “Thankfully it happened to work out.”

After Baseball America named Colabello its independent league player of the year in 2011, his agent, Brian Charles, helped land him a tryout with the Minnesota Twins. With Gedman on hand, he showed well enough to earn a minor-league deal, spending the 2012 season at double-A New Britain, posting an .836 OPS.

The next spring he suited up for Italy at the World Baseball Classic, hit a three-run homer in a 14-4 mercy-rule win over Canada, and made his big-league debut May 22, going 0-for-4 in an 8-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

Colabello played in 55 games for the Twins that season, posting a .631 OPS, and then became a feel-good story in 2014 when he posted an .827 OPS in 24 games to open the season, only to watch his numbers collapse as a wrist injury hampered his performance.

That off-season, the Twins bumped him off the roster and the Blue Jays claimed him, and after so many years of performing and grinding and waiting, he has the chance to further cement his place in the majors.

“I understand the system,” Colabello says. “When things aren’t tangible, sometimes it’s hard to become a believer until you see it over and over and over again. This is a game based on numbers, and if you look at my track record as a hitter in independent ball, in the minor-leagues, barring 2014 when I was injured, my numbers kind of speak for themselves. …

“The journey I took made me who I am today. And I don’t know that if I got drafted in the 25th round and I went to A-ball and played every other day and dealt with a prospect in front of me that I would have been able to handle that. I knew how to come to the field and play. That’s who I am.”