Tao of Stieb: Meditations from Blue Jays spring training

Toronto Blue Jays' Darrell Ceciliani (Chris O'Meara/AP)

A few first impressions, notes and observations from five days at Spring Training in Florida.

The Other Outfielder: One of the key battles this spring should be for the fourth outfielder role, but in spite of a healthy number of candidates, the competition has been mostly tepid thus far. Domonic Brown (3-for-19) and Ezequiel Carrera (1-for-12) have all posted poor results, and haven’t looked particularly inspired in doing so.

Junior Lake was termed a “strong candidate” by manager John Gibbons earlier in the week, and after Sunday’s game – in which he hit a convincing double and scored a run – he’s 5-for-18 with three stolen bases.

The other name in the mix is Darrell Ceciliani, who started the spring by making loud outs, but has had a couple of good outings in a row, and is now 6-for-16 with a .524 OBP and a homer. The California native might have seemed most likely to provide minor league depth, but he has acquitted himself well since coming over in a trade for cash on Feb. 2.

There’s some conventional wisdom supporting the cases for Lake (right-handed hitter to create a platoon with Michael Saunders), Carrera (familiarity with the team) and Brown (still some banking on his upside.)

Gibbons noted that he has attempted to give all the candidates an equal number of at-bats, and that the ability to play centerfield will be a factor. The stocky Ceciliani has played center in the past, including five starts and seven games with the Mets last season. If the Jays were so inclined, he could potentially spell Kevin Pillar. Also, the Jays are already heavily right-handed, so squeezing another one of those bats – such as Lake – onto the roster might not be the most efficient use of their human resources.

Choate Love: Firstly, a hearty thanks to all who expressed their concern following the news of Randy Choate’s signing. It’s gratifying to know that longstanding, one-sided Twitter feud with the veteran southpaw resonated enough that folks thought to reach out immediately. Much appreciated.

What might surprise is that less than 12 hours previous, I had been musing to several people around camp about the idea of Choate as an option, given the uncertainty around Pat Venditte’s role and and the clear signals about Aaron Loup’s health (or lack thereof.)

Choate had a decent bounceback season in 2015, posting a 3.95 ERA (3.68 FIP) in 27.1 innings over 71 games, with the lowest walk rate of his career (4.1 per cent, 1.6 BB/9).

Choate noted that he had been working out at home in Las Vegas before the call came from the Jays, and that given that he’s “not a guy that comes out and throws 98, or not a guy that throws two or three innings every time”, he should be ready to pitch in games very soon.

Waiting for Marco: The crowd was sparse on Saturday morning at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, with a few coaches, a few media members, a smattering of diehard fans, a couple of hitters and a catcher on hand to see Marco Estrada’s first “start” of the spring.

Richard Urena, Rowdy Tellez and Matt Dean took their cuts against Estrada, with only Tellez making any serious contact with one of the 35 pitches tossed. That loud fly ball would certainly have been an out if it hadn’t fallen into an unmanned outfield.

Some of the chatter around camp had leaned towards the assumption that Estrada could be skipped the first turn through the rotation, but there was enough snap and quality to his pitches in that session to conclude that his insistence on taking his regular turn through the rotation might be well-founded.

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Let Pillar Crush: The Blue Jays seem intent on having Pillar lead off, and the player seems game. But watching those top-of-the-first at bats, you’d wonder if they’re not trying too hard to wedge a square peg into a round hole.

Pillar certainly possesses a lead-off hitter’s speed, and he’s generally a pretty crafty base stealer, but he’s also an aggressive hitter and it seems as though his takes early in at-bats are more scripted than felt.

Moreover, Pillar holds his own in crushing with the big dogs in batting practice, and it might not be a stretch to imagine him hitting 20 homers if he were getting at-bats behind Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. If those players were on base in front of Pillar, he may get a shot at more pitchers working from the stretch and a diet rich in tasty fastballs.

That does little to answer the question at the top of the order, but sticking Pillar in that spot somewhat by default does not play to his strengths.

Challenges for Top Prospect: On a team that had a significant amount of future depth sent out in trade over the past two seasons, there were a lot of expectations on Anthony Alford coming into camp.

Before being sent to the minor league camp on Saturday, Alford looked as though the learning curve had become significantly steeper this spring. He managed three walks and three runs, but just one hit and three strikeouts.

Alford has a quick and violent swing, but looked overmatched against inside fastballs from Triple-A pitchers. He’s still just 21 years old, and in his relative infancy in terms of professional baseball, but one might be well-served to push his potential arrival date back by another year.

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