LAKE BUENVA VISTA, Fla. – Last February, Tyler Pastornicky came into spring training as the favorite to be the Braves’ everyday shortstop. A year later, he’s preparing to take on an entirely different role.
During Monday’s infield drills, Terry Pendleton hit a sharp grounder up the middle and Pastornicky, playing second base, charged. He backhanded the ball and in a fluid motion, fired an off-balance throw to first baseman Freddie Freeman.
Pastornicky will play second this spring. He’ll play shortstop and he’ll play outfield, too, all in an effort to make him Atlanta’s next Mr. Versatility.
“Why can he not be the next Martin Prado?” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, referencing the infielder/outfielder who was dealt to the Diamondbacks in the Justin Upton trade.
“I think it’s a little bit different for me this spring in that regard,” Pastornicky said.
He won the starting shortstop role last spring, but after hitting .262 with a .712 OPS through April, Pastornicky struggled with a .238 average and .527 OPS in May and would be demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett.
By the time Pastornicky returned to Atlanta on July 14, the shortstop position now belonged to Andrelton Simmons. In 31 more games, Pastornicky would play the position just four times, never for more than three innings, and made just two starts, both at second base.
Simmons has since become a cornerstone of the Braves’ future — he was deemed untouchable in early negotiations to land Justin Upton — and is expected to bat leadoff, while Pastornicky is fighting for a roster spot.
“It’s just the business of the game,” Pastornicky said. “The team wanted to go in a different direction and you’ve got to roll with it. You have to go with what they want and do what they want. It wasn’t easy, especially when I feel like I can do the job.”
Pastornicky, 23, says he’s grown used to playing second. “I probably feel more comfortable there than at short,” he said, to which his glove work can attest. But the outfield is a different story.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played an inning in the outfield my whole life, so it’s definitely an adjustment,” he said. “But all the drills and stuff have been going well and it’s one of those things where I’m an athletic kid, so if the ball’s hit in the air, go and catch it. Don’t overthink the situation and don’t do too much with it.”
He hasn’t had to look far for advice in his new role, leaning on Prado, a former All-Star who last season played 120 games in left field, 25 at third base, 12 at shortstop, 10 at second base and four at first base.
“It’s tough, because I think he’s the best in baseball at it,” Pastornicky said. “I don’t think there’s another guy that can play five different positions and hit .300 every year. That’s tough to do but if I can be half of what he does as far as doing that, I think I’m doing a great job.
“I just watched him. He’s one of my good friends and I always talked to him and he just told me the same thing, ‘Just don’t worry about where you’re going to play, what you’re going to do. If you’re in the lineup and you’re producing, that’s all that matters.'”
The opportunity to follow Prado in the super-sub role is there, but the question is, can Pastornicky even make the lineup coming out of spring training?
With the Braves expected to use a Juan Francisco/Chris Johnson combination at third base it leaves one less available bench spot. A rehabbing Paul Janish is sure to land another and then there’s the addition of utility infielder/backup shortstop Ramiro Pena. Outfielder/catcher/potential first baseman Evan Gattis has also been raising eyebrows for his offense.
Pastornicky got off to a rough start in his bid to earn one of those bench spots.
Despite living in Bradenton, Fla., just a little over an hour and a half drive from the Braves’ complex, Pastornicky wasn’t among the early arrivals at camp. It marked the second straight year he was one of the last players to report, and Gonzalez made a point of sending a message.
“We’re waiting for [Pastornicky] again this year,” Gonzalez said sarcastically.
Pastornicky, who for the record was training with former Brave Jack Wilson at his home in California, is instead focusing on what Gonzalez told him when they discussed the utility role this winter.
“Just basically telling me that ‘We think you’re athletic enough that you can bounce around and play different positions and that could be very valuable for us,'” Pastornicky said. “As a player that’s looking for a spot on the team, that’s all you want to hear. That’s what you have to do, you have to do what they want and you have to succeed.”