Andrelton Simmons proved his mettle defensively as a rookie. But can he lead off an explosive offense?
By ZACH DILLARDFS South
ATLANTA — With an injury-shortened season behind him and the World Baseball Classic looming,
Andrelton Simmons caught up on his sleep this winter. He might need it.
The 23-year-old shortstop is one of the few
Atlanta Braves still participating in the international tournament, and his native Netherlands team is set to shoulder the full weight of a global schedule. After spending some time in Orlando for Spring Training, Simmons is scheduled to arrive in Taichung, Taiwan, for the team's opening round of games beginning on March 2. With a few wins, trips to Tokyo and San Francisco might also be in the cards.
In total, Simmons, a rookie starter on last season's wild-card team, could travel more than 17,000 miles before returning to Disney's Wide World of Sports to re-join the club.
"I'm used to sleeping on planes, so I should be good," he said with a laugh.
That thanks-but-I'll-be-OK mentality transfused into the franchise's mode of approaching interest in Simmons this offseason, too, as he was more than once rumored to be a coveted prize for opposing clubs looking for offseason trades with Atlanta, as quality middle infielders are tough to find in today's game. The Braves chose to stick with their defensive wunderkind. Coming off a season in which he surprised most offensively — posting an on-base percentage of .335, hitting three home runs and driving in 19 runs in 182 plate appearances — Simmons is not only healthy and poised to re-establish himself in the field, but also to take over a coveted spot in the lineup.
With center fielder Michael Bourn, last season's leadoff man, out of the equation and Martin Prado being sent over to the Diamondbacks in a trade for All-Star Justin Upton, Simmons will, in all likelihood, be the first guy to get a crack at the No. 1 slot versus the Phillies on Opening Day.
"It's definitely a spot I'd like to have. I'm comfortable there," said Simmons, who primarily hit seventh and eighth in the lineup in 2012. "I haven't hit that much (there) last year, but I'm familiar with it."
Braves general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez are comfortable with Simmons, even with his youth and inexperience, being the set-up man for what now looks to be an explosive middle of the lineup — and they've said as much throughout the offseason.
"You know, Simmons was a leadoff hitter all through the minor leagues," Wren said last week before the Upton trade. "I mean, he won the batting title as a leadoff hitter in (Class High-A) Lynchburg, so he's done that."
One pressing concern for Atlanta's lineup will remain in the strikeout column, where the team was fanned a franchise record 1,289 times last season and added two more high-strikeout relatives (B.J. and Justin Upton) to the lineup over the past couple of months. If Simmons is going to find a permanent home at the top of the order, he'll need to provide a stabilizing on-base presence for the Uptons, right fielder Jason Heyward and first baseman Freddie Freeman.
He's shown he has that capability, too.
Aside from capturing the batting title with the team's minor-league affiliate Hillcats — where he batted .311 in 570 plate appearances — Simmons ranked third among all rookies last season with a strikeout rate of just 11.5 percent. Only Chipper Jones and Prado struck out less frequently among Braves hitters. Of course, as with most young players, his command of the strike zone and his ability to draw walks will need to dramatically improve (6.6 percent) to become an elite leadoff guy, but the potential is there and the franchise will certainly give him an opportunity in 2013.
Just think: Just eight months ago, any offense Simmons provided was considered icing on the cake. Now, he could play the catalyst for a franchise that strongly believes it's poised for a World Series run.
But Simmons' defensive prowess is not likely to disappear — and he's already elite in that regard.
"I think the biggest thing as a shortstop is to have pitchers want you back there. That was always my goal on any team that I played with," teammate and defensive-minded shortstop Paul Janish said. "As far as Andrelton goes, man, for being such a young guy, he's not overwhelmed at all in these situations, which is huge especially in the games that we play in. Being in the race down the stretch, playing a lot of close games, having a lot of ground ball pitchers on this team, he's gonna play a huge role."
Atlanta forced opposing batters into more ground balls than all but four other teams last season, pitching to its defense and putting an even greater emphasis on Simmons' glovework. He came through, too. His ultimate zone rating per 150 games (UZR/150) — a defensive metric measured in terms of runs saved above or below an average fielder — was better than any other shortstop that played 200 or more innings.
Additionally, only Seattle's Brendan Ryan notched more Defensive Runs Saved at the shortstop position last season than Simmons.
Simply put: He's one of the best defensive shortstops in the game already and if anything he does with the bat is gravy, then there's expected to be plenty of gravy to go around in the coming years.
"Him and Paul (Janish) are so good there defensively that it takes a little bit of worry out of your mind," reliever Jonny Venters said. "I try to make my pitches and get ground balls and I know that those two guys are going to make the plays, and they're going to make the plays that probably a lot of guys won't make."
At the World Baseball Classic, Wren, Simmons and the rest of the Braves organization are not too concerned with where he bats in the lineup for the Netherlands, but have voiced their desire for him to play his native position, which is not a given with electric Rangers prospect Jurickson Profar also on the roster. Overall, the end product is expected to be beneficial, despite the potential 37-plus hours of flight time.
He's 23, he can handle a little jet lag.
Whether the team's de facto "untouchable" prospect can handle the weight of expectations over the course of 162 games is the main focus for all involved. Simmons himself knows what's at stake and how highly this franchise thinks of him; he was not sleeping through the persistent offseason rumor mill ... at least not through all of it.
"I guess they've got confidence in me and what I can bring in the future. I like that they're expecting more out of me," he said. "So it's definitely not pressure, but it's that push, like, 'OK, we're excited to see what he can bring.' I'm happy they did that. I'm gonna try to meet the expectations that they have.
"I always expect more out of myself. I think I'm the person who expects the most out of myself. I know what I'm capable of. Maybe it's not going to be every day, being at my top, but I know what I can do. I know I can do a lot."