As we sit in the final week of January, just 19 days until Blue Jays pitchers and catchers report to Dunedin for spring training, it’s fair to say this club is not as strong on paper as its 2016 version.
The failings of the off-season have been well-documented, highlighted by the unpopular decision to move on from franchise icon Edwin Encarnacion, and the failure to lure free-agent outfielder Dexter Fowler. While re-signing the other franchise icon, Jose Bautista, has helped salvage things a bit, it doesn’t change the fact this team failed to address some of the biggest needs on the roster. The mandate was to get younger, more athletic, and field a more balanced line-up. Bringing in Bautista, Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales change things only by a fraction. But there’s one man already in the Blue Jays system that has the potential to make fans forget (at least a little bit) about the winter to forget.
Enter Dalton Pompey.
He arrived with a flash in the autumn of 2014. At the end of another sour Blue Jays season, he appeared in 17 games as a September call-up after rocketing through three levels of the minor league system, hitting exceptionally at every stop along the way. The organization had so much faith in the Mississauga native, who at the time was just 22 years old, they pencilled Pompey in as the opening day centre fielder. Michael Saunders’ knee injury cemented his spot, and he made the team out of spring training. But that’s where the fairy tale took a turn for the worse.
In 91 plate appearances to open the 2015 campaign, he slashed .193/.264/.337, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 22/6. He was promptly sent to Triple-A. And then to Double-A. While the Jays experimented with infielders Danny Valencia and Chris Colabello in left field, Pompey continued to struggle in the minors. He returned in September, but started in just two games (the two contests immediately following Toronto’s clinch of the AL East, when every starter was rested). He also appeared on the post-season roster as the pinch-runner extraordinaire.
With Saunders due back in 2016, and Bautista, Pillar and Ezequiel Carrera also on the roster, it was a different vibe for Pompey at spring training. It was generally understood that he would start at Triple-A, and perhaps be given a shot at a mid-season call-up.
But that never happened.
He started slow in April, and battled through a foot injury and a concussion in the early months of the season. Even when Bautista missed a month in June-July, the Jays relied on Carrera to fill in the everyday role, while promoting Darrell Ceciliani and Junior Lake ahead of Pompey. They said they preferred their outfield prodigy to continue playing everyday, rather than sit on the pine in Toronto.
In the season’s second half, Melvin Upton Jr. was acquired from San Diego to provide depth. Not even another Bausita injury, nor terrible results from Saunders and Upton warranted a look at Pompey. He once again was a September callup, and cracked the roster for the ALCS. Outside of the penultimate game of the season in Boston, he never made much of an impact.
And that brings us to the winter of 2016-17. With Bautista and Saunders set to depart as free agents, it left the Jays with a projected starting outfield of Upton-Pillar-Carrera. That doesn’t exactly strike fear into opposing pitchers. Even still, Pompey didn’t appear to be high on the radar. Which is exactly why it seemed Fowler was such a fit for Toronto. He’s a switch hitter, with defensive versatility, and a decent defender.
Fowler chose the Cardinals, and eventually the Jays brought back Bautista. Which appears to leave them with just a hole in left field, as many pundits agree, even in a lineup that should still be above average, a Carrera/Upton platoon is not ideal.
So why not give Pompey a shot?
Both Saunders and Upton were awful down the stretch for the Jays, which opened up more playing time for Carrera. Not even the most optimistic fans should be expecting a full season of that type of performance from ‘Zeke’, despite what he showed in the playoffs. Let’s see how Pompey’s minor league numbers stack up with the vets in the second half.
|July (post-All-Star Game)||12||52||0.150||0.327||0.425||0.752|
|July (post-trade to Toronto)||5||10||0.100||0.100||0.100||0.200|
Even Pompey’s worst month in Buffalo was better than the final 60 games for Saunders and Upton. If Pompey can even just replicate those minor league numbers in the majors, he’s got the potential to be a boost at the bottom of Toronto’s order.
So what needs to happen for Pompey to make the team this spring? By the sounds of it, he’s still a long shot. But if he’s drastically better than Upton and Carrera (assuming no other late-winter signings), I’d strongly consider bringing Pompey north when the team breaks camp. He checks off all the boxes on items management failed to improve through trades and free agency: youth (still just 24), athleticism (he’ll easily be the fastest runner and best base stealer on the club), and more balanced (like Fowler, he’s a switch hitter).
He’s clearly a valuable weapon once he gets on base. Doesn’t he sound like exactly the type of guy you want hitting just ahead of Devon Travis, Josh Donaldson and Bautista? Eventually, he should project to be the club’s leadoff hitter and centre fielder. But for now? I think hitting 8th or 9th and playing left field would suit him just fine.
Every year, there’s a player or two who enter the season with low expectations, but end up making significant contributions. Every team needs them through the course of the six-month grind. For the 2017 Blue Jays, that player is Pompey.
Is it too early for a bold prediction? Well here it is: even if not on Opening Day, Pompey will be a starting outfielder by mid-May. Whether it’s at the expense of Carrera, Upton, or even Justin Smoak (with Bautista moving to first base), Pompey will make an impact for the Jays this season, and help the club return to the playoffs.
At the end of the day, they may need him to.