Kevin Pillar is probably going to be the opening day centre fielder for the Toronto Blue Jays. With the recent upheaval in the Jays outfield (making this piece hilariously outdated), the certainty Pillar provides may be of some comfort to John Gibbons. He’s a plus defender in a position that demands it and has been durable in a time when the Jays don’t have many constants in the lineup. You know Pillar will be there, night in and night out. He had the second most plate appearances among the Jays in 2017.
In order to look ahead, let’s first glance at how we got here. After starting 2015 as the starting left fielder, Pillar was quickly moved to centre and put up a career year, with 3.8 WARP in 159 games. Durable, reliable, and spectacular on defense, Pillar cemented his place in the lineup – able to thrive defensively on a team with many offensive stars. 2016 wasn’t quite as good, though the Jays had too many other questions for them to look too hard at a guy who was still making the minimum. Pillar was found money – someone who’d overachieved to get where he was – and the Jays didn’t really need to change that.
But 2017 wasn’t any better than 2016. After a hot first couple of months in the leadoff spot, Pillar absolutely cratered at the plate, ending the year almost exactly where he’d been in years prior. Pre-season talk of changing his approach didn’t amount to much, leaving his defense as his main calling card. That wouldn’t have been much comfort to a team that had many black holes in the lineup even if the outfield play had remained the same, but Pillar’s defense seemed to have slipped from the meteoric heights of 2015.
2017 was worse for the outfield as a whole, too. Injuries and ineffectiveness had the Jays sometimes scrambling for bodies to man the corners beside Pillar. Twelve different players played the outfield for the Jays in 2017. This only served to highlight Pillar’s decline: of those twelve names, Pillar finished tied for seventh in WARP, as much as Darrel Ceciliani (who played three games) and Dwight Smith. Among the names ahead of Pillar: Nori Aoki (who played twelve games), Michael Saunders (ditto), and even Jose Bautista (who somehow graded well in FRAA).
Pillar can be a useful piece on the right team. For the 2015 Blue Jays (Pillar’s best year by BP’s measurements), having Pillar at the bottom of the lineup was a boon. His stellar defense in centre masked deficiencies in the players on either side of him and a hit-or-miss bat wasn’t as much of a problem when the rest of the lineup was absolutely mashing. You could live with the hot and cold streaks when you had several better hitters in front of him.
The offensive decline of the Blue Jays since then has brought a spotlight to Pillar’s own deficiencies with the bat. While other players not carrying the load was more of a problem, Pillar’s free-swinging ways became more noticeable. Bold talk of wanting to hit leadoff generally didn’t last long, as Pillar’s approach and results were never a fit for someone who would be getting the most plate appearances of anyone on the team. And Pillar’s defense hasn’t as good since 2015, whether by random fluctuation or by some decline in effort or skill by someone who was never projected to be that good of a defensive player. Still, he had provided some surplus value.
Where the problem starts for the Jays will be Pillar’s contract. The 29 year old, in his first year of arbitration, will be making $3.25 million dollars. $3.25 million isn’t much, but it’s not this year that concerns the team. Pillar is going to get more expensive as he goes through arbitration and a team with other financial burdens may question whether a below average offensive player with potentially declining defense is worth that kind of money and a regular spot in the lineup. The Blue Jays didn’t look too hard at Pillar this off-season and his new expense, an understandable decision given the many other questions they already had, but that will change.
The Jays have also gotten much stronger depth in the outfield. The 2017 Jays had no one knocking at the door for a regular spot, save for the oft-injured Dalton Pompey. They also had a left field platoon of Ezequiel Carrera and Steve Pearce, two guys who were likely to see the bench before Pillar. This year, however, the Jays added Curtis Granderson and Randal Grichuk to make a crowded big league corner outfield situation, and have Teoscar Hernandez joining Anthony Alford and Pompey as outfield prospects, likely to knock on the door before too long. With Pillar’s recent struggles, it’s likely his spot on the roster could come into question if one of Alford or Hernandez starts out hot in the minors, or if the incumbent struggles out of the gate.
2018 is going to be a telling year for the Blue Jays and their regular centre fielder. Pillar has been a fan favourite for his defense and one of a few players left from the magical 2015 playoff run. Perhaps he’s still riding the coattails of that year; highlights and memories etched into us so indelibly that we can’t bear to think of a Jays team without him. Or maybe there is another chapter for Pillar, an improvement that sticks, and he can bridge the gap to the next great Blue Jays squad. For a player who wasn’t graded highly as a prospect, and was never expected to be a regular, he’s already exceeded expectations to get as far as he has. He’s still got time to prove the doubters wrong again, but that time is running short.
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