Braves building middle-infield strength to last long time

 

When the Braves traded Andrelton Simmons to the Angels in November, they traded baseball’s best defensive shortstop and, in my opinion, the best defensive player in today’s game, period.

They got back from the Angels a pair of elite pitching prospects in lefty Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, and also veteran infielder Eric Aybar, who should at be a capable stopgap at shortstop until prospect Dansby Swanson is ready, while allowing the Braves to be patient and not feel they must rush Swanson.

Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft, is a former Marietta High and Vanderbilt star who could be at shortstop for the Braves as soon as midseason. They got him in a December trade that sent Shelby Miller to Arizona. (AP photo)

Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft, is a former Marietta High and Vanderbilt star who could be at shortstop for the Braves as soon as midseason. They got him in a December trade that sent Shelby Miller to Arizona. (AP photo)

That said, I won’t be at all surprised if we see Swanson in the big leagues by late summer.

Once he arrives, the Braves could be set for stellar all-around shortstop play for the next decade or more, with Swanson (just turned 22) and Ozzie Albies (just turned 19) both among the top 20-25 prospects in baseball according to several scouting experts, and with the Braves favored to land 16-year-old Venezuelan Kevin Maitan, the top-rated prospect in the international free-agent class that becomes elgible to sign July 2.

Swanson or Albies is expected to eventually move to second base, giving the Braves what could be one of baseball’s slickest, most athletic double-play combinations for a lot of years. And who knows what might happen if they get Maitan and he’s ready for the majors in 4-5 years? Maitan has already drawn comparisons to Chipper Jones by Braves international scouting guru Gordon Blakeley.

The Braves have also targeted 16-year-old switch-hitting Dominican shortstop Yunior Severino, another free agent they hope to sign July 2.

Much like an organization having more top pitching prospects than can fit onto one team, having a bevy of elite shortstop prospects in the same organization is a good problem to have. Here’s how Blakeley explained it when I asked him about that last week.

“If you’re going to play short you’ve got to be a pretty good athlete,” Blakeley said, “and a lot of shortstops eventually move to other positions — Mickey Mantle was a shortstop, he went to center; Robin Yount was a shortstop and he went to center; Chipper was a shortstop and he went to third base. What ends up happening is you take these guys and they’re good athletes, they go to the corners and become plus defenders at other positions.”

The future looks bright for the Braves up the middle, at the crucial shortstop and second base positions as well as center field, where newcomer Ender Inciarte will begin the season and prospect Mallex Smith is waiting in the wings. How good a fielder is Inciarte? Consider this: He finished with more Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) last season while playing multiple outfield positions with the Diamondbacks than either Simmons or former Braves right fielder Jason Heyward had in 2015, Heyward with the Cardinals.

With spring training about to begin, here’s a brief preview of the Braves’ middle infield for 2016. (Oh, and in case you missed it, I did this preview of the catching situation earlier in the week. And here’s a new story I just posted on how the young pitching will be a focus of much attention when camp opens next week in Florida.

Second base

Incumbent Jace Peterson returns after an inconsistent first full season in the majors, when he played through a thumb injury that diminished his offensive production. He could get competition from others including veteran Gordon Beckham, who played 100 games at second last season for the White Sox and had career-worst offensive numbers for the second year in a row (.209 average, .275 OBP, .332 slugging percentage). Beckham, solid defensively at several positions, may get platoon consideration at second base or serve a utility role. Peterson, 25, hit .239 with a .649 OPS in 2015, his numbers dipping a few weeks after he sustained an 80-percent tear of a tendon in his right thumb. After hitting .309 with a .389 OBP and .426 slugging percentage in a 50-game stretch through June 21, he hit .204/.274/.294 in his final 87 games.

Shortstop

As much as most Braves fans – and me — hated to see two-time Gold Glove winner Simmons traded in November, there’s great anticipation for the arrival of Swanson, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the June 2015 draft. Aybar is under contract through 2016 and will hold down the shortstop job until the arrival of Swanson, perhaps as soon as summer or as late as 2017. The former Marietta High and Vanderbilt star only has 99 plate appearances in rookie ball, but his ascendance could be rapid given his age, college experience and relatively polished skill set. The Braves could always trade Aybar at midseason if Swanson looks ready.

If anyone knows what Swanson can expect or can tell him what to look out for, it’s probably Beckham, 29, another Atlanta-area native and former University of Georgia standout who was a first-round draft pick (eighth overall) in 2008 by the White Sox. Beckham hasn’t developed into the standout that most expected him to be, but is hoping to revive his career with the hometown team. The Braves like his versatility and former teammates and coaches of Beckham’s say he’ll add a great deal in terms of leadership.

I’m excited about the opportunity to talk to (Swanson) and kind of give him my experience,” Beckham said, “because I’ve kind of done the same thing he is – high draft pick; he’s going to have a lot of expectations here. It’s going to be in  his hometown. He’s going to have a lot on his plate. So to be able to manage that is going to be huge, and I think I can help him with that, because I’ve been through the wringer. I mean, I really have. Going from, like, the high of Chicago, being really good up there and playing really well, to not playing well and just being on kind of the low end of that. I’ve been on both sides, so I’ll be a good resource for him.

“He played on the same summer team that I did growing up, so I think we’ve got a lot in common. I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard a lot of good things.”

• Let’s close with this terrific tune from Whiskey Myers, from their Firewater album.

“BROKEN WINDOW SERENADE” by Whiskey Myers 

Whiskey Myers

Whiskey Myers

A couple of pretty flowers
Is what I brought I to you
I saw you through a broken window
With a different point of viewYou had signs of depression
From a long line of sin
And your face tells a story
Bout the places you have been
I love you so,
I thought you should knowAnd that muddy waters flowin
As you take my hand
Past the creek down by the holler
Through your daddies land
I could buy you a diamond
But I cannot change your world
Cuz I ain’t got no money
You’ll never be my girl no no
I thought you should know

You was gonna be a singer
Or be a movie star
But you cant catch no breaks baby
And Hollywood is hard

Now you work down at the time out
Off 155
And you’re dancing for your dollar
Just tryin’ to stay alive
It hurts me so
I thought you should know

You feed your addiction
With your crystal meth
And I plea for your life
as it takes you to your death

You make your deal with the devil
As your looks begin to fade
I saw you laughin’ through the tears
As you slowly slipped away
I watched you go
I thought you should know
Yeah I watched you go
I thought you should know

That cold rain is pourin’
As they lower you in a grave
I can barely recognize you
In your fragile state

No more signs of depression
From a long time ago
I throw in a pretty flower
As they slowly laid you low, it was a rose
I thought you should know
Yeah it was a rose
I thought you should know

A couple of pretty flowers is what I brought to you
I saw you through a broken window
With a different point of view….

 

 

 


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