The Toronto Blue Jays, in yet another sign that their slightly announced rebuild is continuing, are sending Kevin Pillar to the San Francisco Giants in return for three players. Heading to the land of colorful currency and milk distressingly sold in bags in return are relief pitcher Derek Law, former-Pirate-prospect-turned-useful-utility-guy Alen Hanson, and minor league pitcher Juan De Paula.
With free agency arriving after the 2020 season and the Blue Jays unlikely to go anywhere positive before then, it was only a matter of time until Pillar was traded to someone in need of outfield help. And when looking up “someone in need of outfield help” in a very odd dictionary, you might see a picture of the San Francisco Giants. If you checked out our positional power rankings last week — and you will be quizzed on those — you’d see the Giants ranking 30th, 27th, and 28th in the outfield, from left to right.
The Giants outfield has been a problem for awhile, and the winter before last, the team attempted to solve it by seriously going after all three Marlins outfielders, Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna, and after missing out on two of the three, picked up Andrew McCutchen as a stopgap option. This winter, on the other hand, with little desire to increase payroll, the Giants decided to collect 17 outfielders each worth about 0.5 WAR and somehow combine them into some form of Eldritch abomination undulating its way to a three-WAR season while hopefully consuming the souls of various Dodgers as a side benefit and then maybe things would be alright.
Narrator: Things were not alright.
Before updating the Giants depth charts, San Fran’s outfield projected at 1.1 WAR. Not each. Combined. Even with questions about his defensive numbers slipping in 2018, ZiPS projects Pillar to be a significant upgrade over the entire Giants outfield, with a .263/.299/.397 line and above-average defense in center, en route to a 2.4 WAR season. Getting Pillar for 2020 is a nice bonus, with the team’s farm system extremely unlikely to develop superior options to Pillar over the next calendar year.
The fundamental problem, however, is that this is largely a case of too-little, too-late. The Giants have had more than their fair share of bad fortune and probably were never as poor a roster as the 73 and 64 wins collected during the last two seasons. Better luck, however, isn’t enough to stretch the gap between where the Giants were in 2017-2018 and playoff relevance in 2019. Pillar and two more outfielders like him are necessary for the Giants to have a good shot at a playoff run, but it may not be sufficient. As an example of this, let’s start with the ZiPS NL West projections as of Tuesday morning.
|Team||W||L||GB||PCT||DIV%||WC%||PLAYOFF%||WS WIN%||#1 PICK||AVG DRAFT POS|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||92||70||—||.568||87.4%||3.7%||91.1%||8.8%||0.0%||23.8|
|San Diego Padres||79||83||13||.488||6.4%||10.0%||16.4%||0.7%||0.0%||13.5|
|San Francisco Giants||69||93||23||.426||0.2%||0.3%||0.5%||0.0%||1.6%||6.1|
Prior to the trade, ZiPS was not all that hopeful about the Giants getting close enough to that 80-85 win margin to at least be interesting in 2019. There are simply too many weaknesses in the outfield and starting rotation, and with the Padres rapidly improving, the computer saw the NL West as a three-tier division with the Giants the only team in the bottom tier. It’s also not a case of ZiPS having some kind of history of underrating the Giants, missing high in both of the last two seasons and overrating the Giants by 0.4 wins a year over the last decade.
Picking up Pillar gets the Giants closer to the bottom of that second-tier in the NL West, but they are still a long way from a playoff spot.
|Team||W||L||GB||PCT||DIV%||WC%||PLAYOFF%||WS WIN%||#1 PICK||AVG DRAFT POS|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||92||70||—||.568||87.1%||3.8%||90.9%||8.8%||0.0%||23.8|
|San Diego Padres||79||83||13||.488||6.3%||9.9%||16.2%||0.7%||0.0%||13.4|
|San Francisco Giants||72||90||20||.444||0.5%||1.0%||1.5%||0.0%||0.6%||7.5|
But let’s ask the question in reverse. The Giants are not a team on the upswing, they’re a declining franchise at the moment, an old, expensive team that isn’t very good and has one of the worst farm systems in baseball. To keep a team like that in win-now mode and not trade players that actually have value — the Giants have some — what chance at the playoffs do you need to justify this plan? Just as a ballpark, I’d say that you probably need at least a 10% chance of making the playoffs to make keeping the window open arguably the best approach. So how do you get the Giants to a 10% chance at the playoffs in 2019?
The point, at least in the ZiPS projections, turns out to be 6.2 additional wins after the Pillar trade. In other words, to become fringe playoff contenders in a single trade, the Giants needed to acquire Mike Trout, not Kevin Pillar. Now, that’s obviously a theoretical that had approximately zero chance of happening given that they probably couldn’t trade the entire current roster for Trout, but that’s the magnitude of challenge the 2019 Giants face in order to be a going concern.
But enough about the Giants. What do the Blue Jays get in return? Similar to the J.A. Happ trade last summer that fetched older, high-floor/low-ceiling players in Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney, the Jays get two players that are MLB contributors right now. Law, a non-entity the last two seasons after a huge dropoff from his 2.13 ERA/2.53 FIP rookie season, is likely a perfectly serviceable reliever at the back of the bullpen. Hanson, a former shortstop prospect for the Pirates and a longtime ZiPS favorite of those days, hasn’t re-established his value as someone you want starting, but he showed enough power and versatility that he may carve out a niche as an interesting utility man that can smack an occasional homer or two.
The only big unknown in the trade is the third player heading to Toronto, 21-year-old low-level minor-league pitcher in De Paula. This is already De Paula’s fourth organization thanks to being a popular trading token, now having been traded for Pillar, Ben Gamel, and McCutchen before even making it to High-A ball. He’s too low in the minors for a projection system to have anything that useful to say about him and I’ve never seen him play, but we have another terrific source of information here at FanGraphs in the form of prospect guru Kiley McDaniel, half of the McDongenhagen Project. De Paula’s fastball hit 93-95 late in spring training, but with a middling changeup and slurve, he lacks a real out pitch. Kiley seems him as most likely a power relief pitcher if he’s able to develop an offering to complement the fastball.
For the San Francisco Giants, this move is unlikely to make an impact this year, with the team literally needing to pull off a trade like this three or so more times this month to make a real difference, which is very unlikely to happen. In a vacuum, the Giants get good value for what they’re giving up and the organization’s problems have little to do with this trade itself. For the Blue Jays, the decision to trade Pillar was necessary, but as with the Happ trade, I’m unsure as to the wisdom of the Blue Jays picking up older fringe major leaguers rather than riskier prospects with higher upside. De Paula fits that bill, but the trade feels a little light to me.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.