Ozzie Albies, the scourge of the Southern League, the master of all he surveyed in Pearl, Miss., for a whole 22 games, has begun anew up in the wilds of Gwinnett.
This much we know early in the career reset begun the last day of April: He’s 19. He’s shorter than the batboys who clean up after him. And he has not exactly hit like Ty Cobb since his ballyhooed promotion last week to the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves.
The Braves are pushing prospects of all sizes into their own kind of Peach Pass lane, one meant to hurry traffic from the minor leagues to the bigs. And Albies, smooth afield and slashing at the plate, ranked the 26th best prospect in the minors by MLB.com, is one of the core intrigues.
This would be a good time to emphasize that such a flow of talent, as vital to the Braves now as blood, will not come without its detours and interruptions.
One moment a player such as Albies might be savaging Double-A pitching in Mississippi — he hit .369 there in the season’s first month, with eight extra-base hits — and fans of the reeling big league team are mentioning him in their prayers every night.
And the next he’ll be scratching about vainly for hits, like a fellow panning for gold in a swimming pool.
Patience, folks, patience. As of Thursday, just five games into his Triple-A stay, Albies was hitting .091 (one of his two hits a game-winning single). This is the same player who, along with fellow prospect Dansby Swanson, has been slotted for the big-boy infield under construction in Cobb County. The Albies blueprint remains unchanged, whatever the temporary changes in his statistics may be.
Upon receiving news that he was paroled from Pearl and bound for Triple-A, Albies professed surprise. “I thought I’d play the full year down there. I didn’t expect this, that’s all I can say,” he said last week, unmindful of the hurry-up-and-grow-up theme at work within the Braves system these days.
“But now that I’m here I’m going to do my best, 100 percent, keep it going, like always,” he said.
How do you know when a player is ready for advancement, especially one as young as Albies, signed at 16 out of Curacao, the same island that gave you Andruw Jones, Andrelton Simmons, Jair Jurrjens and Randall Simon?
You just know, Gwinnett manager Brian Snitker said. This is an imprecise science, based on a marriage of intuition and observation.
Snitker invoked the example of Adam LaRoche, originally a Braves first baseman. In 2004, while managing the Triple-A team then in Richmond, Snitker got the call from Atlanta, “When’s LaRoche going to be ready?”
Can’t tell you for sure, he replied.
Yet, just two weeks later, he reported back to headquarters that LaRoche was fit for promotion. It just happened.
“You can tell,” Snitker said. “No specific thing you look for — just over time, playing him, seeing his game elevate every day and all of a sudden this kid is ready.
“You can’t put a time on it. They all get it differently.”
In Albies’ case, specifically, Snitker refers to another, more recent player, Mallex Smith, now on the fast track in the Braves’ outfield.
“They always talk about adjustment in baseball,” Snitker said. “Like when Mallex came up last year (to Triple-A). He struggled for a while (hitting below .250 in his first 180 plate appearances). And then he kind of got it. He took hold of it and ended up really good. I expect (Albies) will do the same.
“Once he’s here and gets established and feels like he belongs, things will start clicking for him.”
Albies may not have the size that commands attention — he is generously listed as 5-foot-9, 160 pounds. He’s big around the Albies house (brother Zhhihir, 15, is a 5-4 catcher on the island). And a miniature in most clubhouses.
Turning that to an advantage is the trick.
“Everyone tells me I’m small,” Albies said. “What I always say, it’s not about size, it’s about doing your job. I can be small if I do the job. It doesn’t matter about size, age or anything.
“I like to challenge myself against big guys. Try to be better than them. Try to hustle more than them.”
It helps to possess other compensating qualities, ones that allow his game to outgrow his stature.
Albies seems to own an intense curiosity about his craft, a hunger to learn baseball that leads him constantly to be in the ear of coaches and more experienced teammates. He had barely moved into his Gwinnett locker before he was in Snitker’s office, asking him about the team’s signs. “I like to ask before something happens,” Albies said. “You don’t want to be the bad guy in the field. I like to be ready for every situation, every moment of the game. I have to be ready.”
His mother, Judari, built in him an independent streak, preparing Albies for life on his own, having him wash clothes, do dishes, even cook a little so that he’d be able to function outside the ballpark gates. Such life skills have come in handy since mom has remained in Curacao rather than venturing to the States to hold his hand.
His late father, Osgarry, who died at 40 of a heart attack shortly after Albies signed with the Braves, still inspires him. Given the bond between Curacao and the Braves, Osgarry was a big follower of the team and passed that affection to his children. He lived long enough to see his eldest son sign with his favorite team, but not to see him suit up for any of its affiliates.
Before leaving for this spring training — and wasn’t Albies a hit in Orlando, batting .371 with a home run and a double in 35 at-bats? — he visited his father’s grave to fill him in on his progress. The conversations are ongoing.
“Every game I think of him,” Albies said. “I go for him every night. Because he always wanted to see me here. I pray before every game to go hard for him. I always want to do everything for him, all for him.”
The hits must start falling soon, and it won’t be long now until the powers that be will decide Albies is ready. And he will begin filing those updates to his father from a big league clubhouse.