In his literary masterpiece “The Art of Fielding” author Chad Harbach summed up the position as well as anyone.
“The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense,” Harbach wrote. “He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.”
The Braves have been anything but still at shortstop of late, throwing everybody but the batboy out there when Andrelton Simmons went down with a boxer’s break to the right hand last season. But when the 23-year-old Simmons came back, he seemed to be better than ever, which was a huge relief for Fredi Gonzalez.
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Still there are some burning questions for the young, lanky infielder as the Braves polish the roster and prepare for spring training.
1. Where will he bat?
Simmons’ on-base percentage is .335, which would hint at a two or three spot, but the best and most productive place to put him would be leading off.
With Michael Bourn’s free-agency status still in the wings, the lead-off slot is in need of a solid on-base guy with good speed and instincts. After a year of learning under the tutelage of Chipper Jones, Simmons could well fill that role.
Of course, the same could be said of Martin Prado, who successfully fills any role handed to him, or B.J. Upton who batted leadoff with some success during his stint with the Tampa Bay Rays. But good money says Fredi will give Simmons a whirl at the top of the lineup, at least for awhile. Simmons needs to watch a few more borderline pitches, especially if he is in the leadoff spot. He had 21 strikeouts and only a dozen walks in 2012. Experience should help on that front, especially given the agony he seems to feel with each strikeout. This is a kid who takes his at-bats personally. If he can show a little more patience at the plate, he could live up to the potential Bill James sees. James projects Simmons to get on base at a .351 pace, which would make him the best leadoff hitter (if that’s here he ends up) the Braves have had since the glory days of Rafael Furcal. 2. Can he stay healthy?
A broken hand is one of those fluke injuries that could happen to anyone. But shortstop is, by nature, an injury-laden position. More balls are hit there than any other spot on the field and the longest and most awkward throws come from short as well.
It is rare that a shortstop goes an entire season without something: a hamstring, an ankle, a shoulder that needs a little rest. To get through two or three seasons without a stint on the DL is a near miracle.
The question isn’t whether or not Simmons will get hurt, it’s how seriously will he be hurt and how quickly will he recover? If last year is any indication, he heals like a healthy 23-year-old. The Braves need to hope that bounce-back ability continues.
3. How will he react to a new man on his right?
Fredi doesn’t seem worried about the retirement of Chipper Jones. Perhaps it’s because he had a year to prep for the future Hall of Famer’s retirement, or maybe it’s because he knew he had plenty of potential candidates to fill the spot, including Prado, the most versatile guy on the team.
But perhaps who fills Chipper’s spot won’t be as crucial as how Simmons responds to who fills Chipper’s spot. When you’ve been mentored by a legend, it’s not always easy to adjust a new guy at your right hand. How that transition works out will say a lot of about the future of the shortstop position for the Braves and how well Simmons fits in to that picture.