Braves’ Simmons impresses in WBC debut

Speculation ran wild during baseball’s winter meetings and throughout the early part of the offseason that the Braves would (or should) be in the market for a leadoff hitter. With center fielder Michael Bourn hitting the free-agent market following a productive season, the team’s only proven hitter in the No. 1 hole was presumed gone, although the team did offer the 30-year-old a qualifying offer.

But the consensus belief that general manager Frank Wren was scouring the market for a speedy guy for the top of the lineup ignored the presence of Andrelton Simmons, the team’s dynamic young shortstop whom the franchise either trusted enough to handle leadoff responsibilities from the get-go or resigned to his potential when the market dried up.

Indeed, at times, it seemed the team’s shot-callers became more and more confident in Simmons’ ability at the top.

After all, he won a minor batting title batting leadoff.

After all, he hit .289 and rarely struck out last season.

After all, the kid could be a future star — might as well utilize a trial-by-fire approach.

All of these things were uttered on multiple occasions in some form or another.

Watching Simmons make his World Baseball Classic debut for the Netherlands Saturday morning, the rave reviews will likely gather steam. The 23-year-old batted leadoff for the victorious Netherlands squad, finishing 3-for-5 with two doubles and two runs. He was the spark plug for an offense that posted five runs in a shutout victory. Here are a few observations from his opening international performance:

1. Much like the expectations for this season, Simmons’ at-bats versus Korea got progressively better Saturday.

Simmons is not expected to become a batter who works the count and takes plenty of pitches overnight; at this point in his career, that is not who he is. Last season, his first season in the majors, Simmons saw about 3.25 pitches per at-bat. He’s not one to keep the bat resting idly on his shoulders.

But though his strikeout rate was far better than major league average (39th-best among players with at least 180 plate appearances) — the young gun makes contact when he decides to swing — his walk rate was a point of concern. His early WBC at-bats reflected as much:

1st inning: Three pitches; reaches base on a throwing error.
3rd inning:  Four pitches; flies out to center field
5th inning:  Three pitches; single to right
7th inning:  Three pitches; double down the left-field line
8th inning:  Six pitches; double to left

In an admittedly small sample size, Simmons looked more and more patient and comfortable at the plate. As usual, he jumped at pitches he liked and only accounted for two swinging strikes, but in his final at-bat he ran up a full count before reaching base for the fourth time in the game.

Could that be his sophomore season in a nutshell? The Braves would certainly take it.

2. The Braves will be looking to Simmons to be their table-setter for a dangerous lineup, and that’s precisely what he delivered for the heart of the Netherlands’ order.

Simmons reached scoring position four times Saturday. He made it all the way to third three times. That’s a scary proposition for a Braves lineup featuring Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and B.J. Upton. If Simmons is providing RBI opportunities two or three times a game on average, he’ll quickly become his hard-hitting teammates’ best friend. Of course, there will be ups and downs like with any young player, but Simmons has a legitimate opportunity to grow into one of the top shortstops in baseball and he has the full capability to handle the spot.

(Side note: Korean pitchers fed Simmons a steady diet of breaking balls Saturday, with the results noted above. Though he struggled against change-ups last season (.222 average), it was quite surprising to see so few fastballs thrown his way. Last season, Simmons hit fastballs at just a .247 clip — 38 points lower than his season average. As ESPN pointed out recently, he did produce at an efficient rate against the pitch, Simmons attacked fastballs — as he does most pitches — so it will be interesting to see his approach and results as the WBC moves forward.)

3. As expected, Simmons’ work in the field has not suddenly evaporated over the offseason.

Though a potential seventh inning double-play ball ate him up a bit — resulting in a split-second late throw to first by Netherlands second baseman Jonathan Schoop — his ease with the glove remains evident. Coming off a season in which he committed three errors in 426 innings played, Simmons was error-free versus Korea.

Were he healthy the entire 2012 campaign, Simmons would have (should have) challenged for the Gold Glove, which went to Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins. When he was called up at the end of May, Simmons’ fielding was the least of the organization’s concerns. That’s still the case.

If he can stay healthy, challenge for a Gold Glove and be a .300-hitting spark for a top-10 offense, Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez will be beyond thrilled in September and October.