Touted Braves prospect Ozhaino Albies open to position change
ATLANTA — Ozhaino Albies’ agent called him last month to break the news that Andrelton Simmons had been traded to Los Angeles. It was a unique moment for the highly touted teenage prospect: On one hand, with Simmons donning an Angels uniform, Atlanta’s shortstop position was wide open. On the other, a mentor was shipped to another league on the opposite coast.
"I signed with the Braves only because of Andruw Jones and Simmons," said Albies, who soaked up Simmons’ fielding advice even before signing with Atlanta in 2013. "At spring training this year, (Simmons told me), ‘Don’t be rushing. Just be chill. No nervousness or anything. Play like there is nobody out there.’ … My reaction (to the trade) was to keep working hard like I’ve been doing and be ready to play when they call me up."
Albies hails from Curaçao, a small island off the coast of Venezuela that continues to churn out major-league talent, and as far as the 5-foot-8(ish) shortstop is concerned there are two MLB heavyweights worth idolizing: Andruw Jones and Andrelton Simmons. Both former Braves headline his country’s growing list of MLB players — an impressive rundown including former Braves starter Jair Jurrjens, Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen and young infielders Jonathan Schoop and Jurickson Profar — and while Jones remains Curaçao’s Babe Ruth, Simmons has firmly cemented his Gold Glove name in the nation’s sporting hierarchy.
The Braves-Angels blockbuster involving Simmons and top pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis appeared, at the time of the trade, to open the door for Albies to state his case for the starting job in 2017. The Braves acquired veteran shortstop Erick Aybar in the deal, but the 31-year-old becomes a free agent after the ’16 campaign. General manager John Coppolella said on a conference call following the trade that Albies could make a Rafael Furcal-type jump to big-league competition.
The table was seemingly set for the franchise’s top position prospect.
Then the Winter Meetings arrived.
The Braves front office threw a surprising curveball by acquiring superstar shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson in the Shelby Miller deal and, once the dust settled, the conversation eventually turned to the futures of Swanson and Albies. (In retrospect, with the Shelby Miller talks starting at the GM meetings in early November, there’s a good chance Coppolella & Co. were focused on acquiring Swanson even before dealing Simmons on Nov. 13.) Which young player would change positions? Could Albies move to second base or vice versa? Could the team flip one of its high-profile shortstop prospects down the line?
The consensus seems to be that Albies, who displays excellent range but not as strong of an arm, will move to second down the line.
Albies’ response? Whatever gets him to the majors.
"I will play whatever it takes to get me to the big leagues. In the outfield. Third base. Second base. Shortstop," Albies said. What about catcher or pitcher? "Everything."
The future continues to shift for the Braves at shortstop. Before the team handed the reins to Simmons in 2012, Tyler Pastornicky won the job in spring training — a curious choice in hindsight. Then Jose Peraza, the newly acquired Reds infielder, pushed his way up through MLB’s prospect rankings (although he never threatened to supplant a two-time Gold Glover). Then Albies. Now, it’s Albies or Swanson.
These are good problems to have, particularly if the two standouts reach their development ceiling in the coming years, perhaps forming one of the bright young middle-infield combinations around.
Swanson, 21, is considered to be closer to MLB-ready than Albies due to his advanced age and collegiate experience, but the 2017 season remains in play for both players. (The Vanderbilt product did not attend the franchise’s prospect camp this week due to prior commitments.)
Albies tore up Single-A Rome as an 18-year-old, hitting .310/.368/.404 with 29 steals for 122 weighted runs created plus. Swanson was even more effective in Low-A Hillsboro, his first professional season.
Atlanta’s sheer quantity of promising young arms steals headlines, for good reason, but only the Braves and Red Sox boast two infielders in MLB.com’s top-30 prospects. Swanson vs. Albies could become the debate without a wrong answer. To hear Braves executives tell the story, the team plans to have two infield positions filled with standout, controllable talents sooner rather than later.
The Braves, regardless of positional realignment down the road, appear to be in good hands in the post-Simmons era.