Mets finalize deal with defensive whiz Pillar

February 22nd, 2021

NEW YORK -- For most of this offseason, the Mets worked to get stronger up the middle. They acquired Francisco Lindor to play shortstop, shifted Jeff McNeil to second base and signed James McCann to work behind the plate. Now, the Mets have multiple possibilities in center field as well.

The team signed , a historically strong defender who is coming off his best year as a hitter, to a one-year deal on Monday, designating Guillermo Heredia for assignment in a corresponding move. Pillar won’t necessarily be an everyday starter for the Mets, but his presence gives them the option of moving Brandon Nimmo to left, at least on occasion, to improve their defense in two spots.

The base guarantee of Pillar's contract is $5 million for one season, a source told MLB.com, with a structure that allows it potentially to become a two-year deal worth up to $10 million.

Pillar, 32, slashed .288/.336/.462 with six home runs across 54 games last season for the Red Sox and Rockies. He’s a career .262 hitter with 82 home runs over eight big league seasons in Toronto, San Francisco, Boston and Colorado. The California native has a strong defensive reputation from his time patrolling center field with the Blue Jays, but he has rated closer to average by Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric as his career has progressed.

To that end, Pillar posted 11 OAA in 2016 with the Blue Jays but hasn’t come close to that total in any year since, bottoming out at -2 OAA last summer.

The deal is curious in that the Mets also recently signed Albert Almora Jr., a strong center field defender, to a one-year deal. But Almora has a Minor League option remaining, meaning the Mets could start him at Triple-A Syracuse without penalty if they desire. Or the Mets could carry both, giving themselves significant flexibility to sub in defenders late in games.

Pillar is a more experienced option than Almora, with a far longer track record of offensive success. His career OPS is more than 100 points higher against left-handed pitchers (.784) than righties (.678), making him an automatic play when the Mets face a lefty. The team’s three starting outfielders, Nimmo, Michael Conforto and Dominic Smith, are all left-handed hitters. As such, Pillar can assume the role that Juan Lagares and Jake Marisnick have had for the Mets in recent seasons -- starting against all left-handed pitchers and occasional righties, while frequently coming off the bench to spell Smith or Nimmo late in games.

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Pillar likely takes the Mets out of the running for Jackie Bradley Jr., a dynamic defensive center fielder who is said to be seeking a multi-year contract. The Mets targeted George Springer earlier this offseason as a big-ticket option, but they finished second in the bidding to the Blue Jays. The Mets then pivoted to Almora and Pillar, acquiring both on cheaper deals.