By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS —
All any player in the Appalachian League wants is a chance.
Some are high draft picks who were able to cash large bonus checks, while others received little or nothing as a late selection or a free agent.
Yet, all they want is the opportunity to show what they can do.
Kevin Pillar is a perfect example. There probably wasn’t a lot expected from him, but the 2011 member of the Bluefield Blue Jays is just one giant step from the major leagues.
A 32nd round draft choice out of Cal State-Dominiquez Hills, Pillar joined Art Charles and Chris Hawkins as Appalachian League All-Stars, batting .347 with seven home runs, 37 runs batted in, 17 doubles and eight stolen bases, leading the Blue Jays to the championship series, falling just short to Johnson City.
He arrived in Bluefield with a dream, but not much else. He had received a bonus check too, for a whopping $1,000.
Pillar is on his way to making much more.
“A heady player, a hungry player, a guy drafted lower, and he is out to prove something,” Bluefield Blue Jays manager Dennis Holmberg said. “A first rounder or a second rounder, they get $2 or 3 million, money is in the bank, not much to prove, unless they are really motivated and driven.
“A guy like Pillar, he is looking for that kind of money.”
Getting to the major leagues from the Appalachian League is a difficult proposition, as Holmberg explained to the Bluefield Lions Club on Friday.
“It is a tough business, it is a tough job,” he said. “Many are called, but few are chosen. Only 7 percent, 7 out of every 100 players that are drafted make it to the big leagues on average so it is a failing business coming in.”
There are numerous steps to be made to get from Bluefield to Toronto. While everyone doesn’t go to every level, most do wind up in Advanced Rookie League Vancouver, Single-A Lansing and later Dunedin, Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo.
No one has made it faster than Pillar, who skipped Vancouver in 2012, and split the year playing for Lansing (.322, 5 HR, 57 RBI, 20 doubles, 35 stolen bases) and Dunedin (.323, 34 RBI, 8 doubles, 16 stolen bases).
Pillar did have the advantage of having played college baseball, but also had the drive needed to succeed at the professional level.
“You have to understand these are younger players here so it is going to take a little longer, along with the college kids coming out with the high ceiling of internal of wanting to do well,” Pillar said. “He was supercharged and probably bypassed some other guys.
“He has succeeded at every level he has been, from here, winter ball, Arizona Fall League, Lansing, Dunedin, New Hampshire and now he is in Buffalo. He has that internally driven clock.”
Pillar has continued to — as the kids like to say — rake with the bat. All he has done in 15 games in Buffalo is hit .355 (22-62) with three home runs, nine doubles, 11 runs batted in and 12 runs scored. That followed a 71-game stint in New Hampshire, where he hit .313 with five homers, 30 RBIs, 20 doubles and 15 stolen bases.
While other Blue Jays are slowly working through the system, Pillar — who was an emotional leader and always willing to do an interview while in Bluefield — appears to have what it takes to make it big.
So what if he wasn’t a highly-regarded prospect coming out of college. Suddenly, Pillar is closing in on Toronto, while others are just trying to survive.
“I don’t know if it stubborn, it is inability, a combination of both, and then you see a guy like Kevin Pillar, who is knocking on Heaven’s door,” Holmberg said. “He is in Triple-A, he went 4 for 6 the other night, he is hitting close to .400, an unsung hero, a low draft.
“He hustles, he doesn’t have pure speed, he has a playable arm, it is not above average. He does get good jumps in the outfield, he runs balls downs, he is a contact hitter that has made adjustments and he has been able to hit the ball where it is pitched.”
Why? What separates a player like Pillar, who has gone from low draft choice to the brink of the major leagues, from another more highly-acclaimed athlete who never reaches his dreams.
“Being able to mentally adjust and adapt and overcome maybe failure or not take to instruction or coaching as well as the other guys that are underneath the radar,” Holmberg said. “This guy might have five tools, he has got a plus arm, he has got plus power, he has got plus speed, but one or two intangibles that can’t be seen or drafted is the mindset and the heart, the desire and the determination, the thought process.
“There are a lot of guys that are signed on tools and you hope to turn them into ball players, but some of those guys just have a tough time taking to instruction and making adjustments and allowing themselves to be more successful.”
Holmberg is a nurturing manager with a relaxed personality that seems to blend well with the young players in his clubhouse. Pillar seemed to thrive in that atmosphere, and it has continued up through the system.
“I told the guys in the clubhouse the other day, ‘I want you to play the same game with the same passion that you played in Little League every day you went to the ball park,’” he said. “You couldn’t wait to play, you couldn’t wait to ride your bike, get there, have a snow cone, a hot dog and you couldn’t wait to play your game.”
While Princeton has churned out several major leaguers in recent seasons, the last Bluefield baseball product that I can find to get to that point was Ryan Adams, who played for the Baby Birds in 2006.
A few others, Zach Britton and Brandon Snyder have also made it, having played for Bluefield in 2005.
From 2007-2010 before the Orioles flew the coup, the highest progression made by any of those players appears to have been Single-A, including Ronnie Welty, Eddie Gamboa and Michael Flacco.
Of course, Baltimore rarely sent its prime performers to Bluefield, and it showed on the field.
Toronto has, however, stocked its club with top prospects, and eventually — mark it down — at least some of these guys that have played right here in Bluefield over the last three years will reach the big leagues.
Perhaps as soon as this season.
It is with development of young players in mind that Toronto was quick to replace Baltimore in Bluefield in 2011, hoping for a place to groom the next big league stars.
A team like Elizabethton often dominates the Appalachian League — having won five of the last 10 league titles — largely because they draft more established, mostly college-aged players, while the Blue Jays are largely young kids still learning the game.
Exactly the kind of team that Holmberg likes.
“That is why they added this club for the 18, 19, 20 year old kids to get here so their timetable is not going to be as quick as a college kid,” Holmberg said. “The Twins over there, they have a little older club, they are probably more matter of fact, next level, next level, they are older guys.
“These guys are going to take their time, they will go from one level to another level, from here to Vancouver to Lansing. It is a process.”
Some just rise faster than others. Pillar is proof.
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org