Kevin Pillar is essentially the player the Mets hoped Juan Lagares would evolve into. Yes, Lagares would always be challenged as far as getting on base at a strong clip, but the Mets saw the potential for more power and steals to go along with quality defense in center.
That never came for Lagares. If anything, his offense regressed last season and the Mets declined his $9.5 million option for 2020, deciding to try to find a better all-around option. And now there is Pillar — born two months before Lagares in 1989 — sitting on the market.
What was bad for players Monday — 56 of them, including Pillar, being non-tendered — was favorable for all teams, particularly clubs planning to spend little this offseason such as the Mets. From Economics 101, supply in free agency just expanded considerably, which tends to lower prices. The Mets are trying to make upgrades at the financial margins (read: not in the Anthony Rendon market or even in the retaining Zack Wheeler market).
They will try to problem solve in the trade market. Mets executives have made “being creative” their mantra, which translates roughly to washing money by trading, say, Jed Lowrie (owed $10 million) along with, say, J.D. Davis and/or Dominic Smith and/or prospects to obtain a player in an area of need who is making similar dough. But the Mets cannot completely problem solve this way. They will have to delve into free agency with perhaps $10 million-ish budgeted to do that and maybe not even that much.
So the flood of new free agents who could help deepen the Mets within their payroll parameters is a potential boon for them. Some thoughts:
Pillar — The Mets will have to be at peace with what his diving defensive metrics the past two years mean. But in new bench coach Hensley Meulens, the Mets have someone who watched him all last year as the Giants bench coach and should be able to provide a strong read. Pillar, like Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr., rates better with eyeball scouting than with metrics. But even downgraded, Pillar remains a better center fielder than either Michael Conforto or Brandon Nimmo.
He is a low on-base percentage player. But in 2019 Pillar was the first Giant in four years to reach 20 homers. He has stolen either 14 or 15 bases in each of the past four seasons. He plays with energy — one executive who once had Pillar theorized his defensive downturn owes something to how unrestrained he has been about throwing his body around in center. And he had an .823 OPS against lefties last year, so for the Mets he could start against all southpaws and when the Mets want to get an extra bat in against righties, they could still have Nimmo in center and play Pillar late for defense when they lead.
Keep this in mind about center fielders: They are hard to find. Lorenzo Cain, after the 2017 season, was the last quality free agent center fielder, especially since A.J. Pollock, signed last year for four years at $55 million by the Dodgers, probably played himself off the position defensively in 2019. It is one reason why the cost-conscious Red Sox tendered Bradley. They figure someone will trade for his lefty bat and exciting glove. The Giants weren’t willing to gamble about $10 million that the same was true for Pillar. Now, it probably will cost less than that to grab him. The Mets should think seriously about it. They don’t need greatness at this position. Competence has value. If Lagares had the same season in 2019 as Pillar did the Mets’ chances to make the playoffs would have been significantly better.
Blake Treinen — In Monday’s Post, I made the case against pursuing Milwaukee’s Josh Hader in a trade. One reason is the roller-coaster volatility of relievers makes them so risky to invest big in unless you are positive that you should gamble because of unquestioned championship-contending status. The Mets now know this better with Edwin Diaz. But Treinen’s fall from 2018 to ‘19 might be more precipitous than even Diaz’s.
In 2018, Treinen was at 4.2 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference version) for the A’s. That was the best by a reliever since 2008 by some guy named Mariano Rivera (4.3). Then last season Treinen lost control of his trademark sinker and he became a forgotten man and ultimately a non-tender for Oakland on Monday. But 2018 cannot be forgotten and Treinen is just 31, so teams are going to line up to see if they can buy low on a high-end talent. The interest may force a multi-year commitment. For the Mets, they could at least dream on resuscitating both Diaz and Treinen, allowing them to put Seth Lugo inexpensively in the rotation while locking down the final six outs.
Kevin Gausman — If the Mets don’t move Lugo to the rotation, they are going to need a low-cost starter. Gausman is forever going to frustrate because as the fourth pick in the 2012 draft, even when he was good for the Orioles (2016-18) he was not what he was drafted to be in Baltimore. He was acquired down the stretch in 2018 by the Braves, serving as a valuable starter for their division winner. He fell apart for Atlanta last season and was traded to the Reds where he was fine in the pen.
Wheeler was a sixth overall pick who was a perennial disappointment until the past two years, his ages-28 and 29 seasons. Gausman just completed his age-28 season. Aaron Sanchez just completed his age-26 season, but needed shoulder surgery and will miss the beginning of the 2020 campaign. Taijuan Walker, who missed most of the last two seasons following Tommy John surgery then a shoulder ailment, also just completed his age-26 season. All were non-tendered Monday. Not long ago all were viewed as precious cargo that any team should want. Now, they need to use 2020 (probably at bargain costs) to try to revive their careers and earning power. Does one, in particular, appeal to the Mets?
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