Former Jewish Braves Enjoying Success

Former Jewish Braves Enjoying Success

Kevin Pillar, Joc Pederson, and Jared Shuster have had varying levels of success so far this season.

After an up-and-down rookie season in Atlanta, young pitcher Jared Shuster has carved out a critical bullpen role for the White Sox this year // Photo Credit: Darren Georgia © 2024 Chicago White Sox
After an up-and-down rookie season in Atlanta, young pitcher Jared Shuster has carved out a critical bullpen role for the White Sox this year // Photo Credit: Darren Georgia © 2024 Chicago White Sox

Amidst the Atlanta Braves’ impressive run this decade, the franchise has boasted several Jewish ballplayers – something very few other big-league clubs can lay claim to. While only one (Max Fried) currently remains, the three who have departed (outfielders Kevin Pillar and Joc Pederson, pitcher Jared Shuster) continue to represent the Jewish community well with bounce-back seasons. It’s also quite possible that, at least concerning Pillar and Pederson, the Braves haven’t seen the last of the veteran sluggers.

Last year, as the Braves’ lineup was taking  by storm, the journeyman Pillar was limited to a part-time role in which he was deployed mainly against southpaws. After he hit .228 with nine homers and 32 RBI, the Braves opted not to bring back Pillar, who subsequently signed with the Chicago White Sox. Earlier in the spring, it looked like Chicago would be his final big-league stop: at the close of April, the 35-year-old was hitting .160 and released by the White Sox (owners of the worst record in baseball) for the second time in nearly a month.

Last month, there weren’t many hitters hotter than Kevin Pillar, now of the Los Angeles Angels // Photo Credit: Los Angeles Angels

Yet, Pillar, merely 17 base knocks shy of 1,000 career hits and two months shy of 10 years of big-league service that guarantees a full pension in retirement, wanted one more crack at reviving his career. Coincidentally, the Los Angeles Angels, a ballclub perpetually deficient in organizational depth, found themselves in need of a spare outfielder when star Mike Trout landed on the injured list with a torn meniscus in his left knee and reached out to Pillar, who grew up in nearby West Hills, Calif.

Little did the Angels know that Pillar would emerge as their most productive hitter in May and swing one of the hottest bats in all of baseball. Playing for former Braves’ third-base coach Ron Washington, Pillar exploded for one 21-game stretch in which he hit .389 with five homers and 21 RBIs.

“Do I think I’m capable of doing great things in this game? Absolutely,” Pillar recently told Sam Blum of The Athletic. “You just never know when this game is going to say your time is up.

“I’m playing every day not knowing when it could be my last at-bat. Or last time playing center field. Or last opportunity to get into a game.”

Pillar, a 12-year veteran who’s been with nine different organizations since 2019, has a chance to represent the Halos at next month’s All-Star Game in Arlington, Texas. With Los Angeles well out of postseason contention, Pillar’s name will surely get bandied around as the trade deadline approaches. The Braves would seem to be a logical suitor as they are down a big bat after Ronald Acuña Jr.’s season-ending knee injury.

Meanwhile, as Pillar was scuffling on the South Side of Chicago in dreary early-season April weather before undergoing his late-career renaissance with the Angels, Shuster, his teammate for the second straight year, was establishing himself as an effective middle reliever for the White Sox.

Back in November, Chicago acquired the lefty hurler, along with several other players, in exchange for reliever Aaron Bummer. Coming off a rookie season with the Braves in which he did not live up to the lofty expectations befitting a former first-round draft pick (he went 4-3 with a 5.81 ERA over 11 starts in multiple big-league stints), Shuster started this year in Triple-A Charlotte before being promoted to Chicago the second week of the season.

Now in his third NL West team this decade, veteran DH Joc Pederson has reminded baseball fans that he still has a lethal bat // Photo Credit: Arizona Diamondbacks Social Media

Thus far, Shuster, who only a year ago was one of Atlanta’s premier prospects, has not returned to the minors this spring as his ERA has consistently hovered around 3.00 while he’s only surrendered one homer. Shuster has also not returned to his preferred starting role, although there’s no telling if that will change for a stumbling White Sox team likely to unload veterans next month.

Over in the National League, Pederson’s veteran bat has been one of the bright spots for an Arizona Diamondbacks team that hardly resembles last year’s NL pennant-winning edition. In late January, when the D-backs inked Pederson to a one-year deal that carried with it a mutual option for 2025, the reigning NL champs didn’t know which ballplayer they would be getting – the 2022 Joc Pederson that clubbed 23 homers for the San Francisco Giants or last year’s version, which represented a fairly significant drop-off in production.

So far, it’s been the former, as the 32-year-old DH who endeared himself to Braves fans in 2021 with his ubiquitous pearl necklace and three postseason homers, has hit over .300 this spring while staying on pace for 20 homers. Like Pillar, Pederson is not an everyday player as he’s been used nearly exclusively against right-handed pitching, either as a starting DH (defense has never been his strong suit) or as a pinch-hitter.

Also, like Pillar, Pederson, a two-time world champion who in 2020 earned the nickname “Joctober” after he hit .382 with two home runs and eight RBIs during the Dodgers’ World Series run, could be targeted by the Braves in the coming weeks to shore up their lineup in pursuit of a seventh consecutive NL East crown.

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