Braves fans can take heart. They have another Curacao Kid coming up through the pipeline.
The organization that signed Andruw Jones and Randall Simon, that traded for Jair Jurrjens and has Andrelton Simmons patrolling shortstop, is continuing the tradition of rearing another prized prospect from the small tropical paradise north of Venezuela: Ozhaino Albies.
His teammates and friends just call him Ozzie, which is a great name given his position — shortstop. He is 18 years old and playing anything but like it in his first full season of professional baseball, with the Rome Braves.
Entering play Friday, Albies, a switch-hitter, was batting .318 on the season, which was sixth in the South Atlantic League. He ranked fifth in stolen bases with 22. He recently was named to the South Atlantic League All-Star game which will be played Tuesday in Asheville, N.C.
This is after Albies hit .364 combined in rookie ball last year. He hit .381 (24-for-63) in his first 19 games for the Gulf Coast Braves and earned a quick promotion to Danville, where he hit .356 and was named the Appalachian League’s top prospect.
“He’s a baseball player,” said Rome manager Randy Ingle, dropping the ultimate compliment. “He knows how to play the game. You would think he was older, the way he goes about things. He’s got a great personality. He plays hard every game, every play. And that’s not even talking about his tools. He’s got the range at shortstop. He’s got a plus-arm. He’s a switch-hitter that has plus-speed.”
That Albies is a Brave is no accident. Albies signed two years ago for $350,000 at age 16, over the Rangers, Yankees, Reds, Dodgers and Rays.
“My first tryout in my life was with the Braves,” said Albies, who worked out for former Braves international scouting director Johnny Almaraz at age 14. “My family was always the Braves, too, because of Andruw Jones, and Simmons, Jair Jurrjens, Randall Simon. I watched (Jones) with my grandpa, with my dad and my mom, every game, every night.”
Albies said his father surprised him for his seventh birthday and drove him to Jones’ house in Curacao to get his glove autographed.
Albies said he grew up a fan of both Jones and Jose Reyes, formerly of the Mets, now with the Blue Jays. But Albies said his favorite major league shortstop is Simmons. The two worked out together in the offseason in Curacao, along with Jonathan Schoop, a second baseman for the Orioles, and Jurickson Profar, a shortstop with the Rangers who was rehabbing a shoulder injury.
Albies spent time in major league camp this spring and saw action in four games, and he got to take ground balls with Simmons. He said Simmons gave him pointers on taking shorter routes to the ball.
It’s not easy playing shortstop in the same organization as Simmons, knowing it might be a difficult path to the big leagues, but Albies is doing all he can. He’s continuing to hit, working on his line-drive stroke and making the adjustment to pitchers who aren’t giving him nearly as many fastballs as he saw in rookie ball.
Albies pointed to a game late last month against the Charleston RiverDogs.
“I saw like three fastballs during the whole game,” Albies said. “So everything otherwise was change-up and sliders. I hit it, too.”
The numbers bear it out. Albies had hits in each of the three games against Charleston to start a 16-game hitting streak. He went 5-for-12 against the RiverDogs with a double, two RBIs and two stolen bases. For the season, Albies ranks 12th in the league in on-base percentage (.374) and tied for sixth in triples (five). He has 13 doubles.
About the only thing that would seem to be working against him is his height. Albies is listed at 5-foot-9, but might be doing well to stand 5-8. But Ingle is quick to point out that height never slowed guys such as Rafael Furcal (5-8) and Jose Altuve (5-6). And Albies gained eight pounds, up to 158, trying to get stronger this past offseason. Most of it appears to be in his chest and shoulders.
“He’s not tall, but he’s strong,” Ingle said. “You shake his hand, and you’re like ‘This is coming from you?’ He’s like a little piece of dynamite.”