Tim Raines could do it all during an illustrious 23-year Major League Baseball career, during which he established himself as one of the game’s greatest leadoff hitters.
He got on base with amazing consistency, and once there, he didn’t usually stay for long. The outfielder nicknamed Rock used superior speed, great timing and plain old moxie to steal more than 800 bags, the fifth-highest total of all time, before retiring in 2002.
When Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons gazes at his roster this season, he can only wish he could tap somebody like Raines on the shoulder and send him out to ignite the offence at the start of each game.
Who will bat leadoff for the defending American League East champions this season? That’s one of the conundrums facing the Blue Jays as spring training moved into the semi-serious phase here on Tuesday, with the start of the Grapefruit League schedule.
Toronto defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 5-3 at sun-splashed Bright House Field with infield backup hopeful Darwin Barney, who got the start at shortstop, going three-for-three and driving in all five Toronto runs.
Who will be the fifth man in the starting pitching rotation, and who – Drew Storen or Roberto Osuna – will slot into the closer’s role are the other big head-scratchers that Gibbons must answer before camp closes and the meaningful games begin on April 3.
Gibbons does have Raines at his disposal here in Florida. The 56-year-old is providing counsel to the players as Toronto’s roving outfield and base-running instructor for the club’s minor-league operations.
Raines said the role of the leadoff hitter has changed since he ran amok in the big leagues, primarily as a star outfielder with the Montreal Expos from 1979 to 1990.
From 1981 through 1986, Raines averaged – averaged! – 76 stolen bases a year. That’s just 12 less than the entire Blue Jays team mustered all of last season. He also hit .306 with a .391 on-base percentage during that span.
Raines said that in today’s games, teams don’t rely on that type of all-around production, especially in the stolen-base department, from the leadoff guy.
“You look at career leadoff guys, there’s not really that many guys who played the game like myself, Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock and Vince Coleman,” Raines said in an interview. “There’s not that many guys like us even in the history of the game, players who can handle the bat well, know the strike zone and have good speed to steal a base.
“I think these days you have teams that are more three-run-home-run oriented, so you’re not going to have too many guys that are going to attempt to steal many bases.”
Raines said he felt the tide turning even back in 1991 when he joined the Chicago White Sox and was often on base when slugger Frank Thomas stepped up to the plate.
“I remember back in the day, Frank Thomas didn’t like for me to run in front of him because, if I stole second, they’d probably walk him,” Raines said. “Or he didn’t want the at-bat to be affected by me running in front of him. He would be distracted. That kind of shot me down as far as doing what I wanted to do on the base paths.”
The early candidates to start the season in the Jays’ leadoff spot are Kevin Pillar and Michael Saunders. Pillar is probably favoured since Saunders is coming off a knee injury that cost him almost the entire 2015 season.
Although Pillar’s career on-base percentage (.303) is considered low for a leadoff hitter, and he does not walk all that often, Raines said he believes Pillar can fill the job.
“I don’t know how much running [stealing bases] they’ll be doing,” Raines said. “But I think if he does lead off, he’ll maybe have to cut down on some strikeouts and maybe get a few more walks.
“But even saying that, if he gets on base a lot, that’s all you can ask for from a leadoff guy.”
Raines added he believes that second baseman Devon Travis will eventually be moved to the top of the batting order when he recovers from shoulder surgery – he is not expected to be ready to play until a month or so into the season.
Last season, Pillar collected 163 hits in the bottom third of the order. Only Josh Donaldson had more hits on the team, with 184. Pillar hit for a .278 average.
The centre fielder said he believes he is up to the challenge of leading what was baseball’s best offensive unit a year ago. And with the likes of Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion following him to the plate, he will probably see a lot of fastballs.
“People talk about a little less pressure hitting at the bottom of the order [last year], but essentially we were still setting the table for the guys at the top of the order,” Pillar noted. “And a lot of their success came from us being successful at the bottom of the order and getting on base and having guys for them to drive in.”Report Typo/Error
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