Kevin Pillar’s ‘No. 1 goal’ was to return to the Braves. Why didn’t he?

CHICAGO — Going into the offseason, Kevin Pillar’s “No. 1 goal” – his words – was to return to the Braves.

He loved his time with the team and the people there – evidenced by how Pillar and his wife went on vacation with a few of his teammates and their wives after the season ended. He wanted to be part of the 2024 Braves, who are contending for a World Series.

So, why did he not return?

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Pillar detailed the Braves’ interest, his decision and his journey to his current situation – which included signing with the White Sox, then being released and renegotiating his deal to sign with the White Sox again.

Before getting into any of that specifically, let’s start in 2022. Playing for the Dodgers, his hometown team, Pillar sustained a shoulder injury. It derailed his season. After 2022, Pillar was undecided about whether he still wanted to play.

But then before the 2023 season, Pillar had an opportunity: The Braves wanted him. If he could prove he was healthy and could still play at a high level, he had a great chance to make the club. Pillar and Alex Anthopoulos – the Braves’ president of baseball operations – go way back because Anthopoulos drafted Pillar in the 32nd round in 2011 when he was Toronto’s general manager.

“It ended up being a blessing for me,” Pillar said of spending 2023 with the Braves. “It made me really enjoy playing baseball again. It made me really love showing up to the field every day. All the things people say they miss about the game, was actually that – what I experienced from day one when I showed up in North Port (Florida for spring training). How welcoming the guys are, how fun they are, their attention to detail, how much they enjoy working, how much they enjoy playing together, how much they enjoy winning. Yeah, that was my No. 1 priority. I wanted to go back, I wanted to be a part of it. Not just me, but I felt like the team, there was unfinished business. It’s very rare in this game that you get an opportunity to truly run it back with this same cast of characters. I definitely wanted to be a part of that.”

So, now you know why Pillar wanted to return to the Braves. Who wouldn’t want to play for a winning team in a positive environment? But baseball, as you know, is a business.

“My relationship with Alex goes beyond just baseball,” Pillar said. “He’s been a mentor of mine, he’s been a friend of mine, someone (that) in some dark times in my career, I’ve learned on for advice. And I had no problem picking up the phone and giving him a call and just asking him what his thoughts were on me coming back. There was definitely interest there. This was after some of the moves they had made in the offseason, getting (outfielder Jarred) Kelenic. He’s always been honest with me and told me (Kelenic) was gonna get every opportunity to go out there and play – righty, lefty – and that I would just be an extra outfielder, which at this point in my career, I would’ve been more than happy doing, understanding that things happen in this game, things change, everyone goes in with a plan and sometimes those plans change.”

The Braves stayed in touch with Pillar even after the White Sox released him March 22. But if Pillar had signed with the Braves at any point, even before they brought in Duvall, he wouldn’t have platooned with Kelenic. The Braves did that for Duvall, who’s earning $3 million this season, only because they had to offer enough of an opportunity for him to sign with them. If Pillar had returned to Atlanta, he would’ve been a bench player with little to no playing time. (And no one expected Duvall to be available at the price the Braves signed him for.)

Pillar understood the Braves’ situation at the time.

“So, (the Kelenic acquisition) wouldn’t have stopped me from coming back,” Pillar said. “I was encouraged to go out there and look at some other opportunities. At this point, making a half a million, $250,000 still goes a long way to me. If I had made $100 million in my career, if I had made $50 million in my career, chasing after a little bit of that money wouldn’t have been a huge factor in choosing somewhere else as opposed to going back to Atlanta. But at this point, not knowing how much longer I’m going to get a chance to play, I wanted to go out and find a place that I would be happy, but also find a place that would pay me more than what Atlanta was initially offering me.”

Pillar found the White Sox, a rebuilding team that first signed Pillar to a minor-league deal that would pay him $3 million if he were in the majors – the same as his contract with the Braves in 2023.

An unfortunate occurrence: Toward the end of camp, the White Sox released Pillar. They wanted to renegotiate his contract, and now, according to The Associated Press, he’s due $1 million.

“I found a pretty comfortable place here, a place that had Arizona spring training, which was I wouldn’t say the determining factor, but it was an added bonus to be able to stay home six weeks with my kids and my wife, and allow them to live a normal life and continue school, and not have to be taken out, and play their tee ball and softball,” Pillar said. “But in hindsight, maybe if I would’ve been able to foresee the future, given my situation here – getting released and having to renegotiate my contract and (the new one) being a lot closer to what was initially offered (by the Braves) – (it) would’ve probably changed my decision.”

This week, when the Braves and White Sox began their series, Pillar was in the home clubhouse. The visitors – his old teammates – were on the other side.

He ended up with the White Sox. The two are different situations.

“Atlanta is obviously focused on trying to win a World Series. This place is – I don’t want to say rebrand, but they’re trying to fix a lot of things that were wrong over the last couple of years,” Pillar said. “And when I was able to talk to (general manager) Chris Getz on the phone and (manager) Pedro (Grifol) about their vision, what they wanted this place to look like, that was something I wanted to be a part of. I felt like there would be a fun and unique challenge at this point in my career to kind of just come in and be a voice of reason, get a chance to be a leader and a veteran, and try to help some of these younger guys learn what it’s like to be a competitive baseball team, learn how to win games. It’s just a different adventure.”