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Heading into spring training, Kevin Pillar eyes Blue Jays’ leadoff spot

The first full-squad workout at the Jays' training facility in Dunedin, Florida, isn't until Feb. 26 but Pillar has been at camp for weeks getting an early start on his pre-season training.

Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Toronto Blue Jays head into spring training next week without a clear leadoff hitter on their roster. Centre fielder Kevin Pillar believes he can fill that void.

The Blue Jays, who traded prototypical lead-off man Ben Revere to the Washington Nationals for reliever Drew Storen this off-season, open camp Sunday when pitchers and catchers report to Toronto's spring facility in Dunedin, Fla. The first full-squad workout isn't until Feb. 26 but Pillar has been at camp for weeks getting an early start on his pre-season training.

He's already put some thought into his place in the big-league lineup.

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"I definitely can see myself batting lead off," Pillar said in Toronto recently. "It's a role I've been in in the minor leagues. ... My mindset doesn't change whether I'm hitting first or eighth or ninth. Wherever they put me in the lineup my job's to get on base and score runs, allow the big boys to drive me in.

"But I definitely think I'd make a great lead-off hitter. I had success doing it in the minor leagues."

Pillar batted .278 with a .314 on-base percentage through 159 games with the Blue Jays last year, his first full season at the major league level. He also had 25 stolen bases and was only caught stealing four times.

While his on-base numbers aren't striking — he walked just 28 times all season — Pillar isn't too concerned about what his 2015 OBP says about him as a potential lead-off man, especially if the team has reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson batting second again this year.

"I promise you with Josh hitting behind me, if he's in the two-hole I'll get some better pitches to hit," Pillar said. "The walks will come ... We always talk about walks, and yeah walks are going to happen. But I'm out there to hit. If I get a good pitch I'm not going to sit around and try to walk.

"But I promise you if Josh is hitting behind me I'll get on base more."

Pillar spent the majority of last season hitting seventh or eighth, with 519 plate appearances between those spots. But he also led off an inning 120 times in 2015, batting .327 (37 hits, including seven doubles and one triple), with six walks and 15 strikeouts.

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The Blue Jays used Silver Slugger shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in the lead-off spot 26 times last season after acquiring him in a deadline deal that sent Jose Reyes to the Colorado Rockies. Tulowitzki's bat, however, never truly sparked in that role, where he hit a measly .087 with a .192 OBP before Revere took over.

Manager John Gibbons says the team will "experiment a little" in spring training to find the right fit for the top of the lineup. He'd rather that hitter not be Tulowitzki.

"I kind of like him a little further down, to be honest," Gibbons said of his all-star shortstop. "He had no problems with (batting lead off) last year and he was up front about that. ... He told us he's a team guy and showed every bit of that."

The Blue Jays manager doesn't have a specific player in mind for the lead-off spot heading into camp. He'll have the next six weeks to figure that out.

"We'll come up with a good one. We've got the guys who can do it," Gibbons said. "We just don't know exactly who that is yet."

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