In their latest surprise move of the offseason, the Mets signed Kevin Pillar to a one year, $5 million deal on Monday. After signing Albert Almora last week, it seemed like the backup OF spot on the bench was pretty set. Apparently not, as Pillar now sits behind the starting trio of Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, and Dominic Smith on the outfield depth chart.
The 32-year old Pillar isn’t quite the player he was with the Blue Jays in the late 2010’s. While he once was one of the most incredible outfielders in baseball (enjoy this compilation from a couple years back), he’s now much closer to league average - slightly above in 2019, slightly below in 2020 per Statcast’s OAA. Assuming that 2020’s numbers are more do to with sample size and not indicative of a continued decline, he’s still a perfectly viable option in center and a plus in a corner. Offensively, Pillar has significant platoon splits, with an 80 wRC+ against righties but a much playable 107 wRC+ against lefties. He also brings some over-the-fence pop and the occasional steal to the table.
Is that a starting caliber player? Not on a team that fancies itself a top-tier contender, no. However, a defensively competent lefty thumper is arguably the perfect foil for the Mets defensively limited, left-hand-heavy outfield mix. Pillar could start in center against lefties, pushing any one of the three starters to the bench (whoever needs a day off) while also serving as a late-inning defensive replacement in center or left. It’s a fit that, retrospectively, seems too obvious to not have happened.
As for the overall outfield picture, Pillar makes sense even next to Almora. Had Pillar been the only addition, the one “real” center fielder on the roster would be 32 with declining metrics, and an injury or continued decline could’ve left the Mets in a bind. Instead, the Mets built functional depth by adding two reserve outfielders who are defensively capable up the middle. The Almora signing remains flawed, but adding two reserves in this role is a sound roster strategy regardless. It’s also worth noting that Almora still has an option remaining, should the Mets choose to go with a more offensively-inclined bench to start the season.
The details of Pillar’s contract merit some additional discussion. It’s a complicated deal - one year, $3.6 million with a $2.9 million player option (no buyout) and a $6.4 million club option (with a $1.4 million buyout) - which just arrives back to one year, $5 million in a roundabout way. It does, however, lessen Pillar’s CBT hit by $1.4 million. With the Mets more than $20 million shy of the tax, that seems like a superfluous benefit, but it could portend a significant addition or perhaps a couple of mid-tier signings before the start of the season.
What ultimately becomes of that extra room is a discussion more appropriate for the final grade of the offseason. Focusing on Pillar in a vacuum, the Mets added a cromulent bench outfielder that fits their needs perfectly at a very reasonable price. This deal earns a B+.