Braves Examining Options For Shortstop In 2012
ATLANTA—History has a way of repeating itself in baseball. And if the past proves once again to be a harbinger of things to come, the Braves will field a homegrown shortstop for the foreseeable future.
Since 1981, the Braves have opened the season with a homegrown player at shortstop 24 of 31 times. The list includes six-year tenures of Rafael Ramirez, Jeff Blauser and Rafael Furcal, and parts of three seasons by Andres Thomas and Yunel Escobar. A trio of acquisitions—Rafael Belliard, Walt Weiss and Edgar Renteria—all bridged gaps for parts of two seasons.
As the hot stove heats up, Atlanta general manager Frank Wren faces a situation that could have long-term ramifications for his infield. Alex Gonzalez, who has manned shortstop since mid-2010 when he arrived from the Blue Jays in a deal that sent Escobar north of the border, is a free agent. Gonzalez turns 35 this spring and is coming off a season in which he played solid defense but hit just .241/.270/.372.
Wren has said he will consider re-signing Gonzalez. That option would depend upon Gonzalez or another veteran accepting a short-term contract and serving primarily as a placeholder while the Braves determine when such prospects as Tyler Pastornicky or Andrelton Simmons might be ready to handle the responsibilities on a full-time basis.
"We're still having a lot of internal discussions, trying to determine what is best for us," Wren said. "We really like the progress Tyler has made the last year and a half. He's shown he's a major league shortstop. It comes down to internal decisions in terms of when we think he's ready, but we've never been afraid to give young guys opportunities."
Both history and conventional wisdom suggest Pastornicky would be the first in line to fill the void, even though he, like Simmons, has yet to make his major league debut. Acquired from the Blue Jays in the deal that brought Gonzalez to Atlanta, Pastornicky received an immediate promotion to Double-A upon joining the Braves and responded to the challenge. A fifth-round draft pick in 2008 out of a Bradenton, Fla., high school, the son of former Royal Cliff Pastornicky does everything well while giving every ounce of energy.
"Everything I'm doing is centered on being as steady as possible," said Pastornicky, who will play next season at 22. "I try to be a high-average hitter, someone who is going to make consistent contact and move runners and who isn't afraid to hit and run or bunt when called upon to do so. When I'm hitting the ball well, I'm going to get my share of doubles and even a few home runs. I also see my job as a guy who will attack once he gets on base by stealing or going first to third on a single or scoring from first on a double."
Pastornicky has sure hands with average arm strength and solid range. He runs well and puts the ball in play with his smooth line-drive stroke from the right side of the plate. After spending the first three months of the 2011 season at Mississippi, he continued to excel at Triple-A Gwinnett before a high ankle sprain sidelined him in mid-August. Nevertheless, Pastornicky hit a combined .314/.359/.414 and led all Atlanta full-season minor leaguers in batting while ranking second with 27 stolen bases.
"He has everything you look for in a shortstop," Gwinnett manager Dave Brundage said. "Good instincts, good approach at the plate. He can run, steal bases. He's learning, and he learns from his mistakes. "
Simmons joined the Braves a few weeks before Pastornicky after being drafted with the 70th overall pick in 2010 out of Western Oklahoma State JC. A native of Curacao, he turned down a few modest professional offers when he was 16. He caught the eye of Western Oklahoma coach Kurt Russell during a recruiting trip of the Caribbean in 2008. The scrawny Simmons was on the verge of giving up the game but received another chance after he showed promise fielding grounders while wearing sandals in a parking lot.
In his lone college season, Simmons displayed lightning-quick hands on defense while lighting up radar guns at 98 mph as the Pioneers' closer. He hit .472 with 16 doubles and seven homers to help the school finish third at the NJCAA World Series.
Most scouts flocked to the tiny town of Altus, Okla., to check out the righthander's heat, believing that while his defense was as impressive as any infielder's in the 2010 draft, his bat was unlikely to remain productive against pro pitchers. The Braves, however, allowed Simmons to play every day while using his mound potential as a backup plan.
Simmons responded by hitting .276/.340/.356 in the Rookie-level Appalachian League after signing in 2010. Then he shockd people by winning the Carolina League batting title this season.
Simmons, 22, was rated as the league's best defensive infielder, the infielder with the strongest arm, and the loop's most exciting player. Though still raw in many aspects of the game, Simmons has incredible hand-eye coordination, which led to his leading the league with one strikeout per 13.26 plate appearances. He also tied for first with 12 sacrifice hits while showing some pop with 35 doubles and 211 total bases, which ranked second and fourth on the circuit.
"He is as exciting a player as you'll see," said Tommy Shields, who served as the Braves roving infield instructor in 2011. "He's very competitive with outstanding hands and a rocket for an arm. He's a joy to coach, and a guy who's getting better every single day."
More Homegrown Talent
The arrival of Simmons or Pastornicky would give the Braves another piece on a major league roster that was developed in the farm system. The recent turnover to the Atlanta roster has been impressive, with the arrival of homegrown products Freddie Freeman at first base, closer Craig Kimbrel and starting pitchers Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor during the 2011 season. Center fielder Michael Bourn was acquired for three prospects at the deadline, while set-up man Jonny Venters and right fielder Jason Heyward made the jump to the big leagues in 2010.
The performance of Beachy and Minor along with the major league debuts of Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino in 2011 serve as a testament to the Braves' pitching depth. Additional depth has been built by moving Edward Salcedo, Matt Lipka and Mycal Jones—all shortstops in the past two years—to new positions. With third baseman Chipper Jones approaching his 40th birthday, the presence of Salcedo—as well as Joey Terdoslavich, Brandon Drury, Kyle Kubitza and Carlos Franco—at the hot corner has Wren comfortable with the future.
"The last two drafts have given us a lot more depth in our organization," Wren said. "The 2010 draft produced three batting champions in the minor leagues with Drury in the Appalachian League, (Evan) Gattis in the Sally League and Simmons in the Carolina League. Terdoslavich came from that draft, Todd Cunningham has a chance to be an excellent outfielder, Joe Leonard made nice progress in instructional league, and we love Phil Gosselin at second base. Nick Ahmed, another shortstop drafted this year, looked great in instructional league.
"So we feel like we're getting to the point where we have a lot of the positions covered."