“Who is this little guy?”
Lucas Sims remembers the first time he saw 16-year-old Ozzie Albies. The infielder, fresh off signing with the Braves for $350,000 as an international free agent from Curacao, was at his first instructional league.
“I remember when he showed up,” Sims, now a Braves rookie starter, said. “He was a little guy. He was small. He was quiet. But you could kind of tell the way he walked around, like nothing’s ever too big for him. For a little guy, nothing’s really too big for him.
“But the legend, so to say, kind of grows. And here we are.”
The now 20-year-old Albies became a major leaguer Aug. 1, joining the team he grew up watching with his grandfather. He recalled the many nights spent observing Andruw Jones, Rafael Furcal and others.
It wasn’t just a major league debut; it was a debut with “my favorite team.”
In his first game, Albies went 0-for-2, drawing a walk and scoring a run against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Seven games later, Albies, listed at a generous 5-feet-9 and 160 pounds, is still trying to prove he’s worth more than his weight.
“It was fun,” Albies said. “I just had fun with it. Just the same game. I didn’t even realize we’re just playing baseball. It’s the same game.
“It’s been awesome. I just have to keep doing my job every day, show them that I can play in this league.”
Albies scored his first career run when his best friend, Johan Camargo, homered over the right-field wall. When Albies was in Triple-A, he talked with Camargo daily about what life would be like in the bigs.
“It’s funny because we always dreamed and talked about how we wanted this to play out, for us to eventually play next to each other in the big leagues,” Camargo, a Panamanian, said through an interpreter. “We’d always joke and talk about it and now it’s happening in the big leagues. I couldn’t be happier. I’m just enjoying the moment, and I’m glad we’re here spending it together.”
Camargo has since been placed on the disabled list (bruised knee), leading the Braves to recall shortstop Dansby Swanson to the majors Wednesday. The team has made a determined effort for Swanson and Albies to grow together. Former manager Fredi Gonzalez made sure they played next to each other in 2016 spring training. During that season, the organization demoted Albies to Double-A Mississippi so he could join Swanson and develop some chemistry.
“It’s always a joy playing with him, so I expect that (Wednesday) and however long this lasts, it will be the same thing,” Swanson said. “We’re just going to go out there and enjoy it together and take each moment for what it’s worth.”
Albies’ first hit came in his third game and landed in the left-center seats. It continued an unpredictable trend of power: Albies hammered nine homers across 97 Triple-A games, six of those coming after he returned from the disabled list June 13. He has seven homers in his last 51 games.
But aside from that moment, the offensive production has been slim. Albies is hitting .167 with a .619 OPS, collecting just three hits in 16 at-bats since his home run (and going hitless in his first seven at-bats before it). In 20 at-bats against righties, the switch-hitter has a .150 average.
Hardly a cause for concern. Albies said he’s been squaring the ball straight at people, and his start has been anything but discouraging.
“I think the main thing with him is you have to give him some time,” said Braves closer Arodys Vizcaino through an interpreter. “He’s a very talented guy. He’s got an excellent repertoire, and it’s been great to see him so far. I think he’s got a very bright future ahead of him. We all think that way. So we’re excited to see what he can do.”
Vizcaino, from the Dominican Republic, and his teammates often call Albies the “Little Giant,” a common Spanish expression given to players who outplay their physical build, such as the Astros’ 5-6, 165-pound Jose Altuve.
Wherever he’s played, Albies has made an impression worthy of the nickname. Braves manager Brian Snitker has received rave reviews on him over the last year and he expects those qualities to translate to Atlanta.
“The kid’s been an All-Star,” Snitker said. “He’s done well every step of the way, no matter how old he’s been. And I know he’s always been a leader on all the teams he’s been on, even at a young age. In talking to the guys that have had him (on their team), he’s a very mature kid for his age. … He’s an exciting little player with really good skills and it’s going to be fun to watch him play.”