KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Ozzie Albies lined up along the right-field line at Champion Stadium on Tuesday morning and tossed a ball toward center, a nondescript act mimicked by his teammates during the Atlanta Braves first day of spring training. But for Albies, the franchise’s second baseman of the near-future, the drill offered a glimpse at progress.
The 5-foot-9 infielder opens his 2017 camp coming off a strange elbow injury during Double-A Mississippi’s playoff run. The official diagnosis was a right elbow olecranon fracture that required offseason surgery in September. Albies felt elbow soreness before the injury occurred, but he chalked it up to late-season fatigue: “It was bothering me before a little bit. I thought it was just soreness, getting tired or something. And it ended being (a) broken bone.”
Though Albies, the team’s No. 2 prospect and probable 2017 starting option, resumed baseball activities in January, including hitting lightly tossed baseballs and throwing up to 120 feet, manager Brian Snitker said the franchise will be cautious with their 20-year-old standout.
“He’s on a rehab program, pretty much. It’ll be a few weeks before he’s in games. He’s going through the process. They have a program mapped out for him. He’ll be a little behind,” Snitker said. “The biggest thing is just getting him healthy and not trying to rush him. He’s a young kid. It’ll be hard for him, I’m sure, to tone it down a little bit because he’s an aggressive kid that wants to play.
“The medical staff has a program. He’ll stick to it. It’ll work.”
The fact that Albies is still rehabbing his elbow less than five months removed from surgery was expected entering spring camp.
Snitker’s update on Albies’ timeline simply underscored the logic behind the front office’s snap decision to trade for veteran Brandon Phillips following the news of Sean Rodriguez’s pending surgery following an offseason car accident: the soon-to-be rookie will need more time.
“He hasn’t really torqued a ball yet,” Snitker said of Albies. “And obviously with an elbow (injury), turning double plays, different angles and everything, that’s one of those things where you want to make sure before he starts doing that kind of stuff.”
Albies estimated he’s around 80 percent healthy.
The addition of Phillips at the cost of two minor-league relievers and, essentially, $1 million allows for more patience at the major-league level. The longtime Reds infielder, who won four Gold Gloves and earned three All-Star appearances in Cincinnati, is no longer the 20 homer-20 steal threat he was during his heyday, but he’s a viable starting option in the absence of Rodriguez, who signed as the club’s super-utility option this offseason but could miss three to five months. General manager John Coppolella said the team remains unclear on how much time Rodriguez will miss. Meanwhile, last season’s starting second baseman, Jace Peterson, is expected to move into more of a utility role off the bench.
Phillips hit .291/.320/.416 with 11 home runs and 14 stolen bases, and he can still add credibility to an offense that, despite its strong finish with Dansby Swanson and Matt Kemp in the fold, still finished 29th in runs scored.
His age-35 season was his worst defensive season on record (minus-7 defensive runs saved), but with 55 career runs saved and the sixth-best WAR among second basemen since his first full season in 2006, the Atlanta native projects to be a reliable piece opposite another Atlanta native in Swanson.
“It’s like I told Coppy when he was talking about that (move), and it’s like he’s still one of those guys that I hated to see come up (as the opposing manager). He’s dangerous,” Snitker said. “The guy, for me, I always just marvel at how easy he plays the game. He’s a good player.
“I think, again, he just further legitimizes our lineup and lengthens. I don’t think it’ll be anything but a good thing to have in the middle of our lineup.”
Albies will more than likely finish the 2017 season as the Braves’ everyday second baseman. After .292/.358/420 with 49 extra-base hits and 30 steals between Double-A and Triple-A in his age-19 season, it’s only a matter of time. Atlanta’s newest addition should not alter his path to the majors. And with the Reds taking on the lion’s share of Phillips’ salary — paying $13 of the $14 million owed despite not receiving much in return — Atlanta enters the situation with ample flexibility.
When Albies is healthy and ready, the only remaining obstacles should be minor speed bumps.