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Giants non-tender Kevin Pillar, acquire payroll flexibility

The front office’s year-long probation has ended, so the real moves can now begin.

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images

Kevin Pillar was not offered a contract by the Giants ahead of tonight’s deadline for arbitration eligible players. The deadline is a simple thing wherein a team says to an arbitration eligible player, “Here’s a generic contract. We’ll negotiate the numbers up to the arbitration hearing or else make our case to an arbitrator and pay you whatever’s ruled.”

Rather than negotiate with Pillar within the range of what he might seek — and receive — through an arbitration hearing — in the realm of $8-$10 million for 2020 — Scott Harris said, “No-kay, boomer” and sent this year’s Willie Mac Award winner into free agency.

There have been plenty of contract deadline posts written on this site and they’ve all been some variation of “I dunno, maybe?” with even mildly eyebrow raising borderline cases eliciting not much more than a shrug. That’s because non-tender cases neatly assort into three silos: sure thing, no way, could go either way. The Giants have spent the last twenty years offering extensions to or trading away the sure things long before they became ensiloed (it’s a word now) and avoiding being too dumb, organizationally, to plunge their blank contracts into the no way silos. But they subsisted on the could go either way guys.

That changed tonight.

Look, this isn’t a lament about the Giants losing Kevin Pillar. He is not a good baseball player. When I reviewed his arbitration case back in October, I was not under any illusions:

History and the underlying analytics do not trend in Pillar’s favor. And this isn’t just about on base percentage (though it’s not good). His average exit velocity on balls in play (86 mph) was just 10th percentile in baseball, and his 30.7% hard hit rate was just 14th percentile. The quality of contact and overall ability to get on base suggested a career-worst wOBA of .295. As it stands, his actual .301 wOBA (the league average is .322) was just the second-worst performance by him in the Statcast era (since 2015).

So, a 2-year deal would appear to be out of line. Heck, a contract tender would seem to be as well.

I don’t think anything has changed since then, but I’m irked by what went down today. Yes, Kevin Pillar is barely okay. And a 31-year old center fielder clearly — unabashedly, in every conceivable away — in decline should be scouted with a healthy dose of skepticism. There’s enough doubt there to see that he was not even going to be able to duplicate his 2019 line: .264/.293/.442 (93 OPS+, +1.2 Defensive Runs). But what’s the plan for 2020? Who’s going to play center field?

The answer, per Farhan Zaidi himself (via Henry Schulman):

“We want to continue to create opportunities for our younger players,” Zaidi said. “We were in a situation where Kevin was going to be in his last year of arbitration with us, and we’re trying to take a longer-term outlook with our roster.”

That list of younger center fielders — for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to say 24 or older — looks something like this:

  • Steven Duggar
  • Jaylin Davis
  • Drew Robinson
  • Joe McCarthy
  • Jacob Heyward
  • Bryce Johnson

I’m not going to say the Giants are being delusional or even suggesting that they know something we don’t about any of these guys, but I’m not going to say that we should buy the company line. Not at this point.

Pillar projects to be about a 1-1.5 win player in 2020. Whatever Wall Street market adjustment that’s been instituted in MLB’s free agency over the past three years has created an environment where a post-30 veteran worth that much can get about $3 million. Obviously, the Giants would’ve lost their case in arbitration if they pitched that, and that’s why they non-tendered him. This group of twentysomethings with high floors and low ceilings might combined for 1-1.5 wins if everything breaks right, but it’ll be very painful to watch.

For the first time in the Moneyball era, the Giants are finally playing like every other cutting edge team, not playing against the market to build up their roster but following the market principles as strictly as possible to create obvious, slam dunk opportunities.

At least, I think that’s what the collusion-y plan here is, and there’s no reason to believe the Giants aren’t a part of the groupthink at this point. Another key line in Zaidi’s interview with the Chronicle revealed the plot while strenuously objecting that it was not the plot:

“This is not a financial decision, and I expect us to be active in ways to improve in the trade and free-agent markets. We have the financial flexibility on those fronts.”

Financial flexibility.

Younger players.

The generic statement of “the possibility of adding” to maintain a modicum of interest.

We’re talking about $10 million dollars for a major league player whom 1) the fans liked and 2) is legitimately better than what’s currently (and likely to be) on the roster. Oh, and 3) if he does truly tank it at the beginning of the year they can cut him and eat the deal. It’s not going to set back their future financial commitments. They’re not tying up payroll with any good free agents, because none of the good current free agents would want to come to a team that won’t be planning to act like it’s good for . . . who knows?

But again, yeah. We’re talking about Kevin Pillar here. A no-OBP, slap happy gritty gamer whose skill set doesn’t fit into the modern model. And if the Giants had offered him a contract, it would’ve disrupted the social contract the 30 teams have agreed to in terms of adjusting the market downwards.

So, it’s not dumb. It’s smart. I get it. Doesn’t mean I have to like it, especially if liking it means I need to have at least a cursory knowledge of Chicago Booth’s business principles.

But the Giants think they got better today, and that’s what really gets under my skin, because I’m not sure how they did, and I’m not sure how an organization can be so confident in its own players just a year after the development system was revamped and a majority of the players still don’t belong to the current regime.

So, it’s hard to read this as anything other than a cynical move to juice some margins and lower the price of older commodities. Younger players equals cheaper players. Financial flexibility means a better portfolio. The possibility of adding free agents the way they bait the marks. We’re the marks, by the way.

Baseball day trading sucks. There’s my trenchant analysis.

But it wasn’t all so bad. The Giants signed Alex Dickerson, Wandy Peralta, and Donovan Solano to 1-year deals.

Dickerson gets $925,000 for what will probably be 80 games scattered throughout the season. The Giants will guarantee Wandy Peralta $850,000 for the opportunity to see if he generate 80% of Will Smith’s 2019 performance. Donovan Solano gets $1.375 million.

That trio’s projected arbitration earnings, per MLB Trade Rumors’ pretty accurate projection system, would’ve equaled $3.2 million. The Giants saved $50,000 off the projection.

At the very least, Dickerson can be some pop off the bench and maybe he can practice first base a little bit this offseason. Solano probably won’t continue to mash lefties to the tune of .339/.382/.461 like he did in 2019, but he’s a quality, experienced backup they desperately need. Or don’t. Because who cares how they do on the field since they’re going to be bad anyway, right?

The Giants claimed two Rockies this offseason — Tyler Anderson and Rico Garcia — but declined to tender them contracts today, along with backup outfielder Joey Rickard (set to earn $1.1 million in arbitration and clearly not better than a replacement player).

Right before Halloween, I made a not ridiculously out of line comparison between Tyler Anderson and Madison Bumgarner:

So, his non-tender surprised me a bit, but not in the way that Pillar’s did. It’s possible his recovery from knee surgery has not progressed to the Giants’ liking, cheesing a potential deal. The Garcia non-tender probably falls more in the range of fungible reliever they feel they might be able to get as a non-roster invitee instead or negotiate more favorable terms without the arbitration tag on him. Scratch that: he was pre-arb. The Giants merely waived him to clear space on the 40-man roster (which now stands at 36).

We might not know the specific reasoning behind each player move, but at least we now have the main idea behind the Giants’ rebuild plan: do it like all the other teams. It’s going to take a long time and it’s going to be really boring.