Kevin Pillar has felt like a key player for the San Francisco Giants this year, even if his numbers have been subpar. He entered Wednesday’s game hitting .268/.298/.464 (87 wRC+) for the Giants, with a career-high 19 home runs.
That’s the good. The bad is that those numbers still aren’t particularly good, the defense is declining, and he’s about to enter his final year of arbitration.
The Giants might negotiate in arbitration, settle on a happy number, and bring him to the 2020 party. Or they may non-tender him, letting him move on.
There are clear reasons to do both. Let’s start with the negative, so we can rebut it with the positives.
Reasons to non-tender Kevin Pillar
The Giants have team control for Pillar’s final year of arbitration. Pillar’s arbitration over last offseason sat at a cool $5.8 million. Add in another year — and Pillar’s strong performance — and Pillar’s upcoming arbitration should settle on a figure that begins with the number seven.
That’s not a ton of money, but it’s certainly not a bargain bin deal, either.
Lack of baseball diversity
One thing we know about Farhan Zaidi is that he values diversity. His reasoning appears to be pretty simple: the more boxes a player can check, the more options the manager has to come up with the best lineup (and in-game substitutions) on any given day.
It’s why you see Stephen Vogt and Brandon Belt taking reps in left field, and Austin Slater doing so at first. It also was potentially part of the reason for keeping Pablo Sandoval on the roster, because his emergency catcher skills allow the team maximum flexibility with using their backup catcher.
Pillar does not have baseball diversity. He’s a center fielder. He can field well at the corners, sure, but his lack of offense makes him a liability in right or left. He’s not good enough offensively to be a pinch-hit weapon, and he’s not a switch-hitter.
He’s a center fielder who probably isn’t good enough to play every day, but will be paid too handsomely to be a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.
Poor BB/K numbers
We also know that Zaidi values modern approaches to hitting. You can see it in the offseason acquisitions he made, and in the evolution of the team’s minor league numbers. Or you can just listen to the mid-season call-ups, who are pretty clear about what they were tasked with improving.
Pillar is not a modern hitter. He has drawn 14 walks all year despite having more than 480 plate appearances. He’s struck out 68 times, which isn’t horrific in and of itself, but sure is ugly next to the walk numbers.
Austin Slater, Mike Yastrzemski, and Jaylin Davis can all play center field, though your evaluation of their ability there may not be great.
And Steven Duggar — who, if you recall, began the season as the team’s starting center fielder — should be healthy for next year.
There are other options that are younger, cheaper, have more team control, have higher upside, and may (or may not) be better players.
Reasons to keep Pillar
July, morale, and other related things
After the Giants had a 19-6 July that took the team from abysmal to playoff contention, Zaidi opted to keep Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith.
If you listened to Zaidi in the aftermath of the deadline, you may have noticed something. He didn’t talk that much about how the Giants were in the thick of contention and needed to go for it (a justification that would have received a side glare from Mark Melancon and Sam Dyson).
But he did talk about how the Giants deserved to go for it. How it wouldn’t be setting a good precedent or sending a good message to the most important employees of the team - the players - if their sensational play, sustainable or not, were spat on.
That’s how good play evaporates. It’s how clubhouses become fractured. It’s how a team on pace for 81 wins happily drops down to the 60s, where they’re promptly poo-poo’d by marquee players like Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton.
Pillar’s year with the Giants has not been that good. Both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference paint him as a borderline starter with a fading glove and a below league-average bat that represents the high point of his seven-year career.
But he has been emphatically better than the Giants options behind him, and, as a result, he deserves a huge amount of credit for the team’s second-half shine.
Brandon Crawford took to social media to defend Pillar against media criticism as soon as the early-season trade went down. Prior to the season, Buster Posey said that he hopes Zaidi prioritizes bringing good players to the team. The team was openly frustrated by the churn of never-before-heard-of names that entered and exited the clubhouse in the early going. They very clearly like Pillar, the player and the person.
Pillar did not have a lot of trade value entering the year. A (relatively) strong 2019 might change that, though one fewer years of team control could hurt it.
Zaidi surely received a curious phone call or two at the deadline, regarding Pillar’s availability. If he determines the asking price is high enough, it might be worth going through arbitration.
Lack of alternative options
We mentioned Austin Slater, Mike Yastrzemski, Jaylin Davis, and Steven Duggar as potential center fielders. How do you feel about those options? How does Zaidi feel about those options?
The Giants will enter 2020 trying to compete. Not all-in, but with playoff aspirations. They’ll want to start by putting their best players on the field.
Pillar may be one of those best players. He may not.