Kevin Pillar comes to Braves camp highly motivated as he tries to make team



NORTH PORT, Fla. – Kevin Pillar had already gone through a humbling experience when he could not find a major-league job and had to head to Triple-A in the Dodgers organization. He had started on opening day year after year before this, but now found himself in the minor leagues hoping for an opportunity to play in the majors again.

“I was there and it took me a couple of days to kind of realize, like, this is my reality, I’m gonna make the best of the situation, I’m gonna enjoy being in this a little bit less stressful environment,” Pillar told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday from Braves spring training. “I got out of this extremely pressure-filled, stress-filled environment for the last eight years, and I was able to work on the things that I want to work on in a meaningful situation without the pressure of millions of people watching on TV and thousands of people watching in the stands.”

Once he bought into that, he became the best version of himself and the Dodgers soon brought him up to the big club. He felt ready to run with the opportunity he coveted.

It lasted four games.

On an awkward slide into third base in which he tried to avoid a tag, Pillar tore his labrum and broke his shoulder socket. The next day, a doctor told him his season was over because he would need six to nine months of rehab.

Pillar began to ponder his future. Maybe this could be the end, he told himself. He knew he would not be getting any younger. He began to think about his entire career.

“If I never played another baseball game, I would be very thankful and at peace with the career that I was able to make for myself,” he thought, recalling this sobering time.

Then he added: “But that shortly went away and I started to think about attacking my rehab day by day.”

And now the outfielder is here in North Port, where he reported to Braves camp as a non-roster invitee. He is motivated and ready to prove himself – again. Oh, and about his 2022 season: It did not end with the injury because PIllar, known for his toughness, made it back in three months – beating the initial timetable by at least three months – and played in the final week of Triple-A games.

A few weeks after his injury, Pillar spoke with members of the Dodgers’ front office, who told him he might need to play in a winter league to prove he was healthy. He used this as fuel during his rehab. He desperately wanted to make it back before the season ended and enjoy a normal offseason instead of playing winter ball. He accomplished that.

In January, Pillar signed a minor-league deal with the Braves. He will make $3 million if he’s in the majors. Pillar, perhaps the biggest name on the list of non-roster invitees, will be competing for a spot on the team. (Braves fans may remember Pillar as the player hit in the face by Braves reliever Jacob Webb in a gruesome Truist Park incident in 2021, when Pillar played for the Mets).

The Braves have a group of outfield options, but Pillar said Atlanta president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos told him the opportunity here would be “real.” In other words, Pillar would not be another body in North Port – he could actually make the team. Pillar, who knows Anthopoulos from their time in Toronto, trusts the executive.

“Alex drafted me, he believed in me when I was a 21-year-old kid coming out (California State University) Dominguez Hills,” Pillar said. “I feel like in this game, there’s very few guys that you know you can fully trust and that you can believe and you can believe their word is their word. … I believe in our relationship and I believe that what he’s saying is in fact true, and he’s gonna give me the best opportunity to go out there and make a team and help this team win.”

Pillar didn’t have this same situation with Los Angeles last season. No, he knew he would probably not make the opening-day roster because the Dodgers had a full outfield. But Pillar had made a business decision.

Despite everything, he chose the Dodgers because of their track record in getting the most out of players. He saw it as taking a step back (potentially not playing in the majors) to take two steps forward (learning more about himself).

The Dodgers explained to Pillar how his body moves, and did so in a clearer way than other places he had been. They used data and science to help him develop a plan for his swing and how he wanted it to work, then tailored his workouts, treatment and everything else to that. They showed him intricate, if small, parts of his swing that were missing.

He found it enlightening, but perhaps more so reassuring. It felt nice for him to see the little animated stick figure – which is part of the software – aligning with how he thought he moved. It told him he was thinking correctly about it all.

In late May, the Dodgers finally brought up Pillar to the majors. An injury took his opportunity days later.

“Everything just turns to motivation,” Pillar said.

Since debuting in 2013, Pillar has a career .704 OPS. He played a good center field toward the beginning of his career, and his defense has always been better than his bat. The Braves’ left field job is seemingly up for grabs – as are a few bench spots – and Pillar could fill a role on the 2023 Braves.

“I always have been an admirer of his,” manager Brian Snitker said in January. “He’s one of them gamer-type guys that plays the game the right way.”

Pillar knows himself. His name might not jump out, but he’s someone who can provide versatility and have a positive impact in the clubhouse.

“I wanted to be a superstar. That never happened,” Pillar said. “But I always tell people there’s nothing wrong with being a good big-league baseball player. It pays well, you can do it for a long time, you earn the respect of your teammates and the fans that watch this game.

“Constantly always striving to be the best player I can be. Still feel like I could be an All-Star if everything clicks but at the end of the day, I do enjoy being a guy that plays the game the right way, that his organization and teammates value.”

Now 34, Pillar said he doesn’t believe a player ever lets go of the idea of being a star. That’s why he works so hard to improve during the offseason.

But at the end of the day, he’s learned to accept himself.

“There’s very few superstars in this game, there’s a ton of All-Sars, and then you have a tier below that (with) guys that bring a lot of value to teams,” Pillar said. “They can be the best player on the field any given day. And you can make a long career doing that. I also just try to remember where I came from, and if I was talking to myself 10 years ago when I was in this position 10 years later still playing, I would be beyond thrilled with the career that I’ve had.”

When Pillar suffered the injury last season, the time off gave him room to think about everything. It marked his first extended absence from the game in his career.

He came away feeling renewed, and came here feeling motivated..

“I think being away from baseball for the first time during the summer months and having a little bit time to reflect gave me a ton of perspective on on my life and my career and has just given me so much freedom for this opportunity to come out and be like, ‘If it’s the end, it’s the end,’” Pillar said. " But I know that I’ve worked so hard this offseason to prepare myself. I know I still have so much more in the tank. I know that I can play at a high level. But if it doesn’t work out, I’m good. I think that makes me a dangerous player because there’s just freedom in that.”