Red Sox News: Kevin Pillar expects to play corner outfield spots

Boston Red Sox outfielder Kevin Pillar doesn’t expect to take the center field role away from Jackie Bradley Jr. but he can fill any outfield spot.

The vast majority of Kevin Pillar‘s seven-year career has been spent patrolling center field and he’s established himself as one of the best defensive players at the position. The Boston Red Sox already have a Gold Glove Award winning center fielder and Pillar hasn’t come to camp looking to steal his spot.

The newest member of the Red Sox outfield addressed his role with the media after finalizing a 1-year, $4.25 million contract that was made official on Friday.

“Obviously with Jackie (Bradley Jr.), here I wouldn’t see myself as someone that’s probably going to play center field,” Pillar told reporters, per Masslive’s Christoper Smith. “I was lucky to have a little experience last year moving to the corners. But really I’m just here to help any way I can. Try to go out and try to be the best version of myself.”

Pillar has some experience at both corner outfield spots and expects to see most of his playing time at those positions to leave Jackie Bradley Jr. in center. Alex Verdugo will attempt to fill the void left behind by the four-time Gold Glove winner he was traded for. His recovery from a back injury that ended his 2019 season has Verdugo’s availability for Opening Day in doubt, which could open an opportunity for Pillar to begin the season in right field.

It wasn’t long ago that Pillar was in the conversation for the best defensive center fielder in the league. He has produced 60 defensive runs saved and a 31.9 UZR for his career, perennially ranking among the elite in both categories at his peak.

Those metrics slipped last year with Pillar producing a below-average – 5 DRS and -0.5 UZR, leading some to believe he’s lost a step in the outfield and questioning if the 31-year-old is better off in a corner outfield spot. Pillar believes that a few adjustments are all he needs to regain his elite form.

“Some believe, some will say I’ve taken a step back defensively,” Pillar said. “I don’t believe that’s the case. I think it’s a matter of making some minor adjustments out there, whether it’s positioning, getting a little bit more information, which is something I’m excited about (with) joining this organization.”

Pillar explained that the Toronto Blue Jays introduced him to some new defensive sabermetrics last spring that he didn’t have time to properly digest before he was traded in early April. The San Francisco Giants were more progressive with advanced statistics and utilized data a bit differently. Pillar had to adjust to this new approach on the fly and that’s the reason why it seemed his defensive skills had declined.

This will be his first spring training outside of the Blue Jays organization. Pillar is confident that a full camp with the Red Sox to learn their approach is all he needs to get back on track.

If that’s the case and Pillar returns to being an elite defensive player, Boston’s outfield defense might not take much of a step back in the absence of Mookie Betts. Nobody handled the unique dimensions of Fenway Park’s right field better than Mookie but having a pair of top-notch center fielders sharing the same outfield makes for a strong alignment as well.

Having both defensive wizards in the same lineup isn’t ideal for the offense though. Part of the appeal of Pillar is that he’s a right-handed bat who compliments an outfield trio of lefties. When everyone is healthy, Boston’s best lineup construction would include a center field platoon between Pillar and Bradley. Pillar hits left-handed pitching well while the streaky Bradley has always struggled against southpaws.

Pillar may have been being cautious when he claimed he wasn’t here to supplant JBJ in center field. He clearly has a lot of respect for Bradley and he probably doesn’t want to step on anyone’s toes as the new guy in the clubhouse.

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Bradley will remain the primary center fielder for the Red Sox but Pillar should still see some time at the position while also filling in occasionally at the corner spots. His versatility and willingness to remain flexible will help Pillar carve out a decent-sized role with his new team.