Chipper Jones calls Johan Camargo most improved player in Braves’ system

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — In 2015, the season before the Braves hired Chipper Jones as special assistant to baseball operations, Johan Camargo tallied 22 extra-base hits with a .315 on-base percentage as a 21-year-old in High-A ball. The Panamanian infielder turned heads defensively, but wielding an MLB-quality bat seemed unlikely.

Twenty-six months later count Jones, the newly minted Hall of Famer, among those impressed with Camargo’s rapid rise to becoming a productive major-league option.

“Since I came back in the fold after I retired, he’s probably been the most improved player that I’ve seen in this organization,” said Jones, who is in Braves camp through February. “He was a guy that was a slap hitter from both sides of the plate, (swinging) a wet newspaper at the plate. He’s always had the ability to catch and throw at short, and now he’s playing third.”

Camargo arrived at last year’s spring camp in noticeably better physical condition — and the results played out. In his age-23 season, he hit .299/.331/.452 with four home runs and 27 extra-base hits in 256 big-league plate appearances while playing four different positions. The only rookies to best Camargo’s 1.2 wins above replacement in less playing were teammate Ozzie Albies and sluggers Rhys Hoskins (Phillies) and Matt Olsen (Athletics). He’s considered the frontrunner to land Jones’ former spot at the hot corner after playing 286 innings there in 2017.

Camargo’s season was undercut by a strange bone bruise in his right knee suffered while running onto the field against the Phillies, though he returned in early September and played out the rest of the campaign. He played winter ball for Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Winter League, where he hit .324/.425/.500 in 20 regular-season games and dominated in the playoffs.

“The fact that he’s a shortstop and they’re trying to find a place for him to play says a lot about his ability and what they think about him in (the front office),” Jones said. “What did he hit .290, .300 last year? And he’s a slick fielder so you’ve got to find somewhere for him to play.”

Camargo is battling Rio Ruiz and new addition Charlie Culberson, another utility option acquired from the Dodgers in the Matt Kemp trade. Barring a mid-spring addition, the third base job appears to be Camargo’s to lose.