Grange: Pillar’s rise to the majors defies all odds

August 14, 2013, 10:56 PM

TORONTO – If money is the way to really keep score in professional sports, Kevin Pillar is on the cusp of a hellacious comeback.

As a 22-year-old college junior playing Division II baseball, Pillar was an afterthought the Blue Jays didn’t see fit to draft until the 32nd round in 2011.

The organization was so indifferent to having him they offered Pillar a princely $1,000 signing bonus that was more of a courtesy than an incentive. After taxes and expenses, he was left with almost enough to buy an iPhone.

“I had to ask my Mom for some money to buy the rest,” he said.

In contrast, many of the players Pillar was sharing the diamond with Wednesday night in his major league debut were bonus babies, millionaires before they ever took the field as professionals.

Toronto Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia received a $1.7-million signing bonus as the 21st-overall pick in 2007, enough, he says, to buy the house his mother lives in now.

Brett Lawrie was the No. 16 pick in the 2008 draft and pocketed $1.7-million from the Milwaukee Brewers. Some of it he’s saved, but not before he bought himself a house in Arizona and his first car, a 2008 Infiniti G35, which he quickly flipped for a Land Rover and then a Mercedes.

What do you say to a new teammate who was judged worth a fraction of what you were able to command to sign a minor league contract?

“Sorry, I guess,” Lawrie said, jokingly. “What can you say? But it just shows that it doesn’t matter where you start, you can make it. Everyone starts on different levels. Now he’ll be making the good cheques like the rest of us.”

How many MLB paydays Pillar eventually sees will depend on how quickly he can adapt to life in the American League East, but based on how he’s made the transition to every level of professional baseball since he cashed that meager signing bonus, Pillar could be in Toronto for a while.

He’s rocketed through the Blue Jays’ minor league system at a rate any first rounder could only wish for, getting to the bigs faster than either Arencibia or Lawrie did, for example.

In four stops over three seasons, all he’s ever done is hit, accumulating a a batting average of .321 with an OPS of .832.

It’s the kind of production any organization can’t ignore, regardless of how unlikely the source and it earned him a call-up from triple-A Buffalo Wednesday and a start in left field against the Boston Red Sox, where he went hitless in four at-bats, though he did line out twice.

“We got him wrong, just because if he has a chance to get to the big leagues, you don’t wait for the 30th round to select him,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said to reporters after announcing the roster move.

Proving people wrong is the ember that burns at Pillar’s core.

He had a D-II record 54-game hitting streak as a junior at Cal State Dominguez Hills where he finished his junior year as the school’s all-time leading hitter, with a .367 average. But he’s never gotten over being drafted in the 32nd round, and sounds like he never wants to. He wears a bracelet on his wrist with the word ‘compete’ on it.

The reminder seems unnecessary.

“Being drafted in the 32nd round after what I thought was a successful college career – even thought it was at the Division II level – there’s definitely a chip on my shoulder to prove that they got it wrong at the draft; that there’s an imperfection in the draft system with the way scouts value players and the way they discredit things guys do at smaller schools,” Pillar said.

“So going in I was a little bit upset and I carried that chip on my shoulder. I wasn’t given anything and I had to earn the respect of my teammates and the coaching staff’s.”

It’s an unusual story, but not unheard of in baseball.

Whereas the NBA only has a two-round entry draft and the NHL and NFL each have seven rounds, baseball is an outlier, extending dreams to 1,200 players over 40 rounds each summer.

Most of those taken in the later rounds are merely fodder to fill out the rosters of baseball’s extended minor league system, but some players defy the odds; take the opportunity to develop as professionals and force their way into the big leagues. Starting alongside Pillar in left field Wednesday night was Rajai Davis in centre, himself a 38th-round pick.

“It’s a whole different paradigm in baseball; the pool of players is so large it’s impossible to evaluate all of them properly. There aren’t enough eyes, you can’t track them, there are so many games, and guys just get missed,” said Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, a first-round pick with a late rounder’s story after spending parts of 14 seasons in the minors.

“And in baseball some guys just improve, they constantly improve and so a 32nd rounder who takes the opportunity to play professionally very seriously can improve exponentially if they’re around the right people and coaches and all of a sudden they figure something out and they’re in the big leagues.”

Pillar is the first of the Blue Jays’ 2011 draft class to make it to the major leagues and his first at-bat completed a full day of ‘wow’ moments.

“It started with the car service picking me up from Buffalo,” he said. “… and then pulling up to the stadium is another ‘wow’ moment and walking in the locker room and not really knowing what to expect… and then the biggest [wow] is when in you’re in the dugout and finally look at the field. It’s a lot bigger than it looks on TV.”

He’s wrong. The biggest wow is that he’s made it this far, defying an entire industry’s collective baseball wisdom. Based on his draft position a view of a major league ballpark from field level was one Pillar was never supposed to get. If it was, he’d have been paid a lot more than $1,000 to put his name on a contract just three summers ago.

He may have started behind in the game, but he’s made up ground fast. Based on his history, Pillar won’t be so cheap to sign next time around.

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