Uber-Confident Albies Didn't Expect To Move This Quickly
DURHAM, N.C.— Over the weekend against Durham, Braves shortstop Ozzie Albies made it from home to first in 3.97 seconds--and he didn’t even get a strong first step out of the lefthanded batter’s box. That’s 80-grade speed on the 20-80 scouting scale. Point is, the man can fly.
But even he didn’t expect to move this quickly.
A year ago at this time, Albies was the shortstop for low Class A Rome and in just his 55th game in full-season ball. Now, he’s playing every day in Triple-A, where he’s far and away the youngest player in the International League. This, after starting the year as far and away the youngest player in the Double-A Southern League.
Throw a new position into the mix--Albies on Sunday started at second base for just the second time in his pro career--and it’d be understandable if Albies felt a little bit overwhelmed by his quick ascension. Instead, the 19-year-old is taking it in stride.
“It’s just something I have to go with and play the game. It’s the same game, but just the level changed. That’s all,” he said.
After acquiring Dansby Swanson, the former Vanderbilt shortstop and last year’s No. 1 overall pick, in an offseason trade that sent righthander Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks, the Braves suddenly had a glut of talented shortstop prospects. So, to make sure each player got everyday reps at the position, Albies was vaulted over high Class A Carolina and sent straight to Double-A Mississippi to open the year.
That, Albies said, was always part of his plan.
“My goal was to start this year at Mississippi,” he said, “and it happened. So I was ready for it. When I got sent down from (big league) spring training camp, I was doing really well. … I expected and was thinking they were going to send me there, and it happened.”
On a stacked team that included righthander Chris Ellis and lefty Sean Newcomb--both of whom came over in the trade that sent shortstop Andrelton Simmons to the Angels--Albies shined. Before moving to Gwinnett on April 29, he was hitting .369/.442/.512--his average and on-base percentage placed him in the among the top two in the league, and his slugging percentage ranked seventh--with a home run and seven RBIs.
Over the last five weeks, Albies is finding out quickly that Triple-A is a much different animal. The pitchers, he says, are far less predictable. With Mississippi, he knew he could expect a fastball if he got to a 2-0 count. Not so in the International League, which is full of veterans with major league experience. In the same count, a veteran might still go with offspeed to see if a hitter--particularly one as inexperienced as Albies--will get himself out.
“The pitchers here are more consistent. They throw everything for a strike. No matter the count, you can expect a different pitch,” he said. “They’re more veteran and they know how to locate pitches.”
Fortunately for Albies, he’s also got a couple of veterans on his team who can provide advice and help him develop into the player the Braves believe he can become. Particularly helpful are infielders Erick Aybar and Reid Brignac--a pair with nearly 6,000 combined major league plate appearances. Their experience came in handy at a crucial juncture during Saturday night’s game.
With one out and Gwinnett down a run and the tying run on third, Durham had a meeting at the mound. While that was going on, Aybar, who was in the on-deck, came up behind Albies, who was getting set to hit, placed his hands on Albies’ shoulders and began offering some advice for the situation.
“He was telling me to stay through the ball,” Albies said. “He told me ‘He’s not going to throw you anything close to the strike zone, so just be ready for a fastball in case he opens with a fastball, but he’s going to throw a lot of stuff,’ and he opened with a fastball.”
Albies jumped on the first pitch he saw and shot a hard grounder toward second baseman Nick Franklin, who bobbled the ball long enough to allow the tying run to score. And although Gwinnett fell in extra innings, Albies took small, unseen step forward in his development.
Brignac, himself a former highly touted prospect--he ranked among Tampa Bay’s Top 10 prospects six times, placed in six league Top 20s and ranked as high as No. 17 on BA’s Top 100 prospects--is happy to offer guidance to the next wave, just as veterans did for him when he was coming through the ranks.
“Nineteen is young, but he’s a very mature kid. He’s a hard-worker, and he’s just going to continue to get better, and I think that’s why the Braves pushed him to be up here around a lot of veteran guys playing for a long time,” he said. “We don’t cut him much slack, and that’s kind of our job as veteran players to stay on him and keep his mind right when he’s scuffling a little bit and say ‘We’ve all been through this. You’re not going through anything that we haven’t gone through already. It’s going to come and it’s going to go, so just keep a good mind set and you’ll be fine.'”
Albies is well aware that this is the last year for Turner Field in Atlanta, and he’d very much like to be in the majors next year when the Braves open SunTrust Park. Truly, he’d like to be there even sooner than that. It doesn’t matter whether he’s at second base or shortstop, he just wants to be in the majors as quickly as possible.
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“My goal is to reach there this year,” he said,” but to open the season up there next year, that would be awesome.”