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David O'Brien

Andrelton is an artist, ’14 season a fresh canvas

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http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1496419233001?bctid=3232263441001

DARK STAR, Fla. – Andrelton Simmons sat at this locker this week, opening boxes of equipment shipped to him by companies that he has deals with, most notably Mizuno. He opened a big box containing three gloves, the leather tanned, smelling like really good, new leather smells.

Andrelton Simmons won the NL Platinum Glove last season as the best defensive player  in the league.

Andrelton Simmons won the NL Platinum Glove last season as the best defensive player in the league.

Two gloves were noticeably smaller than the other. The two were his workout gloves, which most shortstops use to catching balls in the center, so that when they use their regular, larger gloves, it gives them that much more margin for error. Not that Simmons needs much margin or makes many errors, of course.

Dude is the best defensive shortstop in the game. Actually, most observers these days seem to be in agreement that he’s the best defensive player in the game, period. The Platinum Glove he won from Rawlings last fall signified that he was the best defender in the NL, and metric stats say that no other shortstop has been close to as good as he’s been since Simmons, 24, arrived in the big leagues early in the 2012 season.

And after playing fewer than two seasons, and despite an OBP under .300 in 2013, the Braves showed how highly they and others think of Simmons’ defense and power and overall package of skills by giving him a seven-year, $58 million contract Thursday. A deal that really looks like a bargain for the Braves, considering the eight-year, $120 million contract that the Rangers gave Elvis Andrus a year ago, when Andrus was the same age as Simmons is now (albeit with 2-1/3 more seasons of major league service).

So anyway, Simmons sat at his locker, opened the big box, took out individual boxes within the box, and from those individual boxes he pulled out cloth bags, each containing a glove. He the first glove on his left hand, pounded it in the palm with his right fist, gave a satisfied look, then did the same with the second glove….

Watching him, it didn’t feel like just watching any ballplayer go through this mundane task after reporting to spring training. It felt more like watching an artist testing out new brushes and the color of the paints on his palette. Know what I mean? Because watching highlight reels of Simmons, or just focusing on him throughout the course of a game, is akin to watching an artist, rather than a mere ballplayer.

He makes art out of fielding grounders, turning double plays and throwing laser beams from the back cut of the infield.

So anyway, Simmons has been one of the first to arrive at spring training in the past, but had visa issues this year and only got here on reporting day. But he’s here now, looking more fit than ever, with a few added pounds of muscle – not the 10 that he hoped to add this offseason, but enough, he said.

“Getting stronger,” he said. “I just got my grip strength tested, and it’s good.”

He’s Just under 200 pounds. “Hopefully I stay around where I’m at, 195, 197. It depends. If I feel good heavier, why not? But I feel comfortable where I’m at right now.”

He’s not married, lived back home while in Curacao. Ate his mother’s cooking ever day. Including an island specialty, fish soup.

“We had fish, we had chicken, lot of rice,” Simmons said. Good stuff.”

Three months at home was about a month more than he’s spent there in recent years. But the visa problems didn’t permit him to leave on time and go back to Oklahoma to work out with the team from his former junior college, as he’s done in previous years.

“It was a pretty good offseason,” he said, smiling. “Mom got tired of me though. I stayed there too long. I stayed a month longer than I wanted to.”

Now he’s here. Spring training is underway. Simmons is doing his thing at shortstop every day, fielding balls, throwing to first. He loves taking infield, always has. Terry Pendleton said he sometimes has to run him off the field, or the guy will stay out there so long he’ll wear himself out.

Stand back, folks. Artist at work.

• Vasquez ready to start bullpen bid: Before Dom Chiti left his position as a Braves scout/special assistant in November to become Orioles bullpen coach, he left the Braves with a scouting report and a recommendation, which led to their signing potential impact reliever Luis Vasquez.

And last summer, in the season after Peter Moylan was left go by the Braves and signed with the Dodgers, the popular Aussie reliever helped out fellow sidearmer Vasquez while teammates on the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate last summer.

Luis Vasquez was a struggling Dodgers minor league pitcher before he switched to throwing sidearm during the 2012 season. His stock has climbed in the past year, and he's got a chance to be an impact reliever for the Braves.

Luis Vasquez was a struggling Dodgers minor league pitcher before he switched to throwing sidearm during the 2012 season. His stock has climbed in the past year, and he’s got a chance to be an impact reliever for the Braves.

“I worked some with (Moylan), and he said the secret to going down (sidearm) is being able get lefties out” with the slider, said Vasquez, who has honed that pitch into a devastating weapon he uses against lefties and to complement his mid- to upper-90 mph fastball. “All the time (Moylan would) tell me, you can get lefties out.

“He was showing me how to throw the slider back door. He told me, ‘I didn’t have a chance to play with anybody’ (until Moylan shifted from a conventional arm slot to being a sidearmer).

“He helped me out.”

Suffice to say, Vasquez might not have had a chance to pitch in the majors without making that radical change in his arm angle.

He’d spent five-plus undistinguished seasons in the minors before becoming a sidearmer in 2012. The following season, he pitched to a 2.88 ERA in 25 appearances in 2013, including a 1.69 ERA in seven games after being promoted to Triple-A, with 12 strikeouts in 10-2/3 innings.

That was good, but then he elevated his performance again during winter ball in the Dominican, which he says was in large part due to the continued honing of his slider. Something had clicked, he said. And boom. He took off.

Vasquez, 27, caused a lot of discussion among scouts down there in the D.R., posting a 1.56 ERA and .086 opponents’ average in 22 relief appearances, with 19 strikeouts and three walks in 17-1/3 innings. Other teams approached him ready to feel him out and make contract offers — only to learn he’d already signed with the Braves.

“He’s 96 (mph) from here (the side),” said Braves utility candidate Joey Terdoslavich, another who excelled in the Dominican league this past winter. He didn’t know Vasquez, but saw him pitch a couple of times against Terdoslavich’s team. “It’s impressive when you throw that hard from (the side).”

Vasquez credits several Dodgers minor league coaches with helping him work on throwing sidearm the past couple of seasons. The no-longer-a-kid, who had toiled in the low minors for years in the Dodgers organization, finally appeared to be on track again for the majors.

That slider is a big reason he could make it happen this year with the Braves. When you shake his hands, you can’t help but notice how strong his long, slender fingers are. It’s not a normal feeling. I remember Pedro Martinez having similar hands, though I don’t think Vasquez has the double-jointed ability that Martinez had to make his fingers and wrists bend at severe angles.

That slider, that’s the pitch that could make him a lot of money in the majors. And the movement on his fastball.

“The ball moves a lot, so I don’t have to be, like, perfect on the corners,” said Vasquez, who needed to do that previously to have much of a chance against good hitters. “Now if I get ahead in the count, I can just (snaps fingers) use that slider.”

Soon after Chiti recommended him to the Braves, Vasquez signed with Atlanta as a minor league contract. Chiti left the Braves at about that same time, to take a job working alongside Dave Wallace. The veteran Wallace had recently stepped down from his position as Braves minor league pitching coordinator to become Baltimore’s major league pitching coach.

The Braves lost some excellent baseball minds and pitching teachers during the offseason when they lost Chiti and Wallace.

If one of Chiti’s last Braves contributions was to recommend Vasquez, it could turn out to have an impact for Atlanta. The sidearmer could end up winning a spot in the bullpen for a Braves team that’s had one of the finest ‘pens in baseball in recent years, and every season during that stretch has been able to blend in a previously unheralded pitcher or two.

When I asked Frank Wren a few days ago if Vasquez had a legit chance to be part of this year’s bullpen, he didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely,” he said. “What we saw in winter ball – he was THE most talked-about pitcher down there. Dom Chiti went down early. Before (Chiti) joined the Orioles, he went down scouting for us early, which he did every year, to take a look at primarily arms that we have information on leading into the winter league season. And he came away thoroughly impressed.

“He called and gave a recommendation, and we were able to get him signed. Other (teams) were on him as well, but I think Dom getting down there early made a big difference.”

Vasquez pitched for Licey, the powerhouse winter-league team he always wanted to pitch for while growing up in the D.R. in San Pedro de Macoris.

“That was huge for me,” Vasquez said. “And they gave me big responsibility. Every time I’d go in the game it was a big situation. You had to be prepared. If you pitch and you give up a hit (for Licey), you can’t go walking in the streets the next day because people would say, ‘You gave up a hit last night.’ It’s a big deal down there.”

And the thought of pitching in the big leagues is a really big deal for Vasquez. He hasn’t thrown yet so far in camp, because he was a few days late due to visa issues – yes, visa issues are common this time of year in baseball — and has been held out the past few days due to a lat muscle strain he sustained in the right side of his back a few weeks ago in the Dominican league playoffs.

But neither he nor the Braves seemed concerned, and Vasquez was expected to be cleared when he passed his team physical this weekend.

Since he pitched late in the offseason in winter ball, missing the first week or 10 days of spring-training workouts might do him some good anyway. If he’s cleared to pitch after this weekend, there will be more than enough time to get ready for the season and compete for a major league job.

And based on what he did over the winter, I’d have to think he’s got a good chance to be in the ‘pen on opening day or soon after.

The Braves have a few returning relievers who are out of minor league options – Cory Gearrin, David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro – and will have to be on the team or be exposed to waivers before they could be sent to the minors. But from all I hear about Vasquez, it’s only a matter of time before he’s in the bullpen. And it’ll be sooner than later.

Perhaps as soon as opening day.

Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan and Carpenter are cinches for the bullpen. Varvaro probably is, too. But that leaves at least two spots open. Either of the fifth-starter candidates Alex Wood or Freddy Garcia could end up in the bullpen, Wood if the Braves decide they’d like a second lefty reliever until Jonny Venters gets back in May or June.

Ryan Buchter seems like the only other lefty option on the 40-man roster.

Either way, expect Vasquez to get strong consideration for one of the spots. And unless options or opt-out clauses (Garcia has one) dictate otherwise, Vasquez could have a good shot at being in the ‘pen on Opening Day.

• One of the more underrated bands of recent years is Rilo Kiley, and you can hear a great tune of theirs by clicking here.

“SILVER LINING” by Rilo Kiley

And I’m not going back

Rilo Kiley

Rilo Kiley

Into rags or in the hole
And our bruises are coming
But we will never fold

And i was your silver lining
As the story goes
I was your silver lining
But now I’m gold

Hooray hooray
I’m your silver lining
Hooray hooray
But now I’m gold

And I was your silver lining
High up on my toes
You were running through fields of hitch-hikers
As the story goes

Hooray hooray
I’m your silver lining
Hooray hooray
But now I’m gold

Hooray hooray
I’m your silver lining
Hooray hooray
But now I’m gold

And the grass it was a ticking
And the sun was on the rise
I never felt so wicked
As when I willed our love to die

And I was your silver lining
As the story goes
I was your silver lining
But now I’m gold

Hooray hooray
I’m your silver lining
Hooray hooray
But now I’m gold

Hooray hooray
I’m your silver lining
Hooray hooray
But now I’m gold

But now I’m gold
But now I’m gold

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