In need of a starting center fielder who is average or better defensively, the Mets added a backup whose defensive skills have been declining. And they already had a backup.
Still, when you unpack the Pillar signing and squint hard enough, it’s easy to understand what the Mets were thinking — and how Pillar might fit.
First, let’s discuss Pillar’s defense…
Once one of the better defensive center fielders in baseball whose high-flying acrobatics were staples on highlight reels, Pillar — now 32 years old — has experienced a sharp decline there since 2018.
Pillar was worth -4 DRS in center field in 142 games in 2018, -6 DRS in 133 games in 2019, and -4 DRS there in just 21 games in 2020.
He was in the bottom 11 percent in 2020 in OAA (Outs Above Average) and was well below average with the jumps he got. On the positive side, he was in the 73rd percentile when it came to sprint speed.
The bad news here is that Pillar is no longer an even average defender in center field.
The good news — if you’re chalking up his showing in center field in 2020 as an aberration — is that he’s still much better out there than Brandon Nimmo, who was borderline unplayable at the position last season.
One of the issues the Mets are now facing is that Pillar is a redundancy when added to Albert Almora Jr.
The Mets could carry both Pillar and Almora, but that would possibly squeeze someone like Jose Martinez (or even Luis Guillorme) off the bench.
Almora is the better center field defender but Pillar is the better hitter and overall player — and still average to slightly above in both corner outfield spots.
So the plan should be to carry just Pillar, with Almora optioned to the minors. It should be noted that Martinez also has minor league options and can be sent down.
Pillar has value and is a better fourth outfielder than Almora. But he needs to be used off the bench. That brings us to the situation with Nimmo, the DH, and Jackie Bradley Jr.
As things currently stand, the Mets are in a tough spot.
Bradley is still on the free agent market and is a perfect fit, but the continued uncertainty surrounding whether there will be a universal DH in 2021 means the Mets currently have a logjam in the outfield.
Without the universal DH, Nimmo will almost certainly be in center with Dom Smith in left.
If there is a DH, Nimmo can slide to left and Smith can play first base or be the DH — which would open up center field.
As is noted above, Pillar should be used off the bench. So if center field does open up due to an agreement on the universal DH — and Bradley is still on the market — the Mets need to pounce.