Andrelton Simmons continues to impress in Majors
Since the departure of Rafael Furcal to free agency, the shortstop position in Atlanta has lacked the promise of a long term replacement. Elvis Andrus seemed on his way to be a sure fire star SS in Atlanta for years to come, until the infamous trade that sent him and Neftali Feliz to the Rangers for the superstar rental, Mark Teixeira. The playoff run that was expected to be inevitable with Tex and free agency looming in the near future never materialized. In 2010 and 2011, Braves fans watched as Andrus and Feliz played key roles in leading the Rangers to consecutive AL pennants. While Alex Gonzales played excellent defense during his time in Atlanta, he failed to provide consistent quality at-bats. During the 2011 offseason, following a September collapse of epic and historical proportion, many Braves fans speculated whether the Braves might go after free agent Jose Reyes, who would have brought elite status back to the left side of second base. Those paying closer attention however, knew that the Braves had too much of their payroll (about $30 million) tied up in two veterans, Chipper Jones and Derek Lowe. Although GM Frank Wren was able to move Lowe to the Indians, the Braves still would be paying a majority of his salary for the 2012 season. On top of Reyes being injury prone and the Braves historically shying away from high priced free agents, the talented SS was virtually never an option.
Fast forward to spring training 2012. Since the Braves decided not to re-sign Gonzales (he was asking for a 2 year contract, which the Brewers were willing to oblige) and had not made any other moves in regards to a SS, it was assumed that Tyler Pastornicky would begin the year in Atlanta as the starting shortstop. Pastornicky had hit somewhat successfully at AA mississippi (.299 BA in 2011) and was promoted to AAA Gwinnett by the end of the season. From the outside it seemed that there was no other option.
Curacao native Andrelton Simmons had also been invited to spring training, but with little or no hope of making the roster. Simmons had zero at bats above A ball in Lynchburg, and most scouts speculated he wouldn’t be ready to face major league pitching although he had performed better than expected at the plate thus far. Originally drafted by the Braves as a pitcher in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft, Simmons insisted that he be given the chance to prove himself as an everyday player. With a plus arm (Simmons clocked in at 98 mph off the mound) and plus range at SS, the Braves agreed to give him a shot. Good call. Without the pressure of being expected to jump from A ball to the majors, Simmons dazzled fans and team mates with his major league quality defense AND proved that his hitting would continue to progress as he held his own against major league pitching in spring training. Meanwhile, Pastornicky was struggling to find his groove in the field and at the plate the first couple weeks of spring training. There was plenty of talk coming out of the clubhouse and news wires that a battle for the starting shortstop job was officially in play. It was obvious that Simmons was far more advanced in the field than Pastornicky, and at one point it seemed inevitable that Simmons would prevail. But after a nagging injury to Simmons and Pastornicky started looking more comfortable at the plate and in the field, the Braves stuck with original plan and Simmons was assigned to AA Mississippi to begin the year.
Regardless of the decision, it was widely believed that Simmons wouldn’t stay down long. Pastornicky showed signs of promise during the first few weeks of the season with some clutch hits (which rarely indicate and true value of a player ANYWAYS) and “good enough” defense. But as the grind of the grueling MLB schedule started setting in, and further indications that Pastornicky does not possess the talents to serve as a long term SS in the big leagues, the move that Braves fans and commentators had been anticipating was made. Simmons, through 18 games so far, has been as good as advertised in the field and exceeded any expectations there might have been at the plate. With 27 hits (10 for extra bases including 3 homers) and a VERY respectable .859 OPS (very respectable for a rookie shortstop, or just about anybody for that matter) it appears that Atlanta finally has the type of SS that could prove to be an elite player at the major league level. Sure, the sample size is small and Simmons is likely to cool off from his .314/.348/.512 slash line, but his defensive abilities already rank near the top of NL shortstops which is satisfactory for a Braves lineup full of All Stars and one future HOF player.
With Simmons, Freeman, and Heyward (when healthy) the Braves have an excellent track record of young talent entering the majors since 2010 (Heyward and Freeman finished 2nd in ROY votes, a very real possibility for Simmons as well behind the inevitable winner....Bryce Harper). Ground ball pitchers like Tim Hudson are already seeing the benefits of the defensive upgrade in the six hole, instilling more confidence in Hudson’s “pitch to contact” strategy. The Braves and fans alike would be justified in feeling a boost of excitement and hope for a long reign of excellence from their young stars, with Andrelton Simmons leading the way in the field.
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