I’ve written my fair share of articles on Kevin Pillar over the years, most of them praising him and looking optimistically at his future with the Blue Jays. However, this one is not going to be like the others. This one is going to advocate for the Blue Jays to trade Kevin Pillar.
Everybody knows why Kevin Pillar is valuable; there are no ambiguities about where his talents lie. The 29-year-old is good because he gets to balls in the outfield that a lot of other plays can’t get to, thus making life a lot easier on the Blue Jays’ pitching staff. But it’s an oversimplification to just assume that reputation holds as true now as it did when Pillar started to burst onto the scene and into walls in 2015. In fact, the evidence suggests that Pillar has had quite a dramatic downturn in his defensive skills recently. Going by the Statcast numbers, Pillar completely changed in 2017, costing the Blue Jays two outs relative to the average fielder, whereas he earned them an extra 15 outs in 2016.
That difference can be seen most dramatically in what Statcast refers to as four star and five star plays, the hardest outfielders can make. In 2016, Pillar converted 64 and 22 percent of his opportunities for making these plays, respectively. That accounts for 16 four star plays made, and nine five star plays. In 2017, those percentages shrunk to 26.7% and 0.0%, equaling raw totals of 4 and 0 plays made respectively. That is a big swing in plays that Pillar once made, that he didn’t convert on in 2017.
This is important because Pillar is who he is at the plate. He won’t be changing anytime soon. He has talked about being a different hitter many times in the past, but in the end, once the sample size increases and small discrepancies are weeded out, Pillar is still the player who is overzealous at the plate and is very liberal with what he swings at. Because of that, the value he provides offensively is virtually non-existent, if not detrimental in the aggregate. Therefore, his entire value lies with his fielding. And if his fielding has shrunk as the statistics would seem to say (If Statcast data wasn’t enough for you, FRAA, DRS, and UZR all agree with the sentiment as well), then we have already seen Pillar’s prime, and it would be wise to get off the train now.
If the Blue Jays decide to make Pillar available, they are in a unique situation this winter because there are not many centre field options available on the open market, yet there are a few suitors. Lorenzo Cain is the only free agent who is definitively better than Pillar at this time, as Jarrod Dyson has faded and is now recovering from surgery, while Carlos Gomez probably should be in a corner outfield spot when play starts in 2018. As for teams that could use a centerfielder, the lists includes the Rangers, Royals, Brewers, Mets, Giats, and Mariners, though I’m sure that list would expand if the Blue Jays were looking to trade Pillar.
Of course, trading Pillar doesn’t make much sense if the Blue Jays don’t have a replacement for him. Making one hole to fill another isn’t how you build a good baseball team. Luckily, the Blue Jays have accrued outfield depth in recent years and would be able to replace Pillar if traded. The list of possible names include Anthony Alford, Teoscar Hernandez, and even Dalton Pompey, if you somehow believe there is something left there.
Alford had a very good 2017 campaign when he wasn’t dealing with the injury he suffered in his brief call up to Toronto and although the team was dealing with a roster situation when they originally brought him up, they wouldn’t have made that move and started his clock without the belief that he could play in the majors. Scouts rave about his defense and when the bar to clear offensively is Kevin Pillar, it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t be able to at least mimic that performance.
For Hernandez, I think most would agree that his offensive talent exceeds that of Pillar’s. The question for him would be if his defense translates to centre field or if he is better suited for a corner spot. More than likely the answer is that he does belong in left or right field, but again, if the bar to exceed is the value Pillar puts up, I think it would be reasonable to assume that the offensive gain would be bigger than the defensive loss.
The reasoning behind all of this is that the Blue Jays must get something in return for trading Pillar. Discussing what they may get is a fool’s errand, because unless you’re in the front office, you don’t know how teams value him. However, no matter what, the Blue Jays would save money from ridding themselves of Pillar and deciding to play Alford or Hernandez. Both of those players are scheduled to make the league minimum in 2018, while Pillar is projected for a salary of $4.0 million according to MLBTR. Those $3.5 million in savings could go along way to helping this club build when it seems like the team currently only has about $25 million to spend this off-season.
Pillar has had a fantastic career in Toronto, no doubt. He has overachieved since being drafted, but his value is correlated directly to his success in the outfield. If that success is slowly coming to an end as he ages, he all of a sudden doesn’t become the best use of $4 million when players exist within the Blue Jays system that could provide similar value for an eighth of the cost. If that means Pillar should be traded, it’s been nice while it lasted. But in the end, the team has to make the smart move to build the best possible roster from player one through 25.
Lead Photo: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
Jays Journal recently published a piece on the idea of trading Pillar as well. This article was started prior to the Jays Journal article being released.