LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Midway through spring training last year, Andrelton Simmons boldly said his goal was to win the Braves’ Opening Day shortstop job. This despite having no experience above Class-A.
He didn’t get the job out of camp, but Simmons had it by the end of May when the Braves brought him from Double-A to replace struggling rookie Tyler Pastornicky.
Simmons quickly showed why he would be the team’s present and future at shortstop, batting .333 with 10 extra-base hits (three home runs) and 14 RBIs in 25 games during his first month in the majors. Not bad for a rookie from Curacao who was expected to make the big leagues almost entirely on the strength of his stellar defense and cannon-like arm.
“I wanted to make [the team] from the start, but I was pretty happy with how the year went,” said Simmons, who hit .289 with a .335 on-base percentage and .458 slugging percentage in 49 games, despite missing nearly eight weeks after breaking a bone in his right hand while sliding head-first in the last game before the All-Star break.
The hand wasn’t pain-free until November. Now, Simmons is back to pick up where he left off.
Not only is he Atlanta’s starting shortstop, he’s penciled in to bat leadoff. The Braves replaced center fielder Michael Bourn with free agent B.J. Upton, but they don’t have anyone better suited than Simmons to replace Bourn in the leadoff role.
“I don’t think he’s got to change his approach,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We’re not asking him to.”
Of Simmons’ 166 at-bats as a rookie, 106 were in the eighth spot in the order and 41 in the seventh position.
He didn’t hit leadoff at all for Atlanta last season, but Simmons batted in that spot much of the time in 2011 when he won the Carolina League batting title, posting a .311 average with a .351 OBP and 26 stolen bases for high-A Lynchburg.
“There’s not a huge difference” batting leadoff, Simmons said. “It’s still see the ball, hit the ball.”
He drew just 12 walks in 49 games for the Braves, but also struck out only 21 times despite hitting in a lineup position (eighth) that called for him to expand the strike zone at times and swing at anything close to the plate.
Some believe he could thrive in the leadoff spot, where he can be more selective. Simmons hit .311 with a .359 OBP in his 106 at-bats batting eighth, impressive for any player but particularly a rookie.
“I don’t have to be more aggressive now, and that’s going to be good for me,” he said., “Sometimes in the 8-hole, you don’t want the pitcher to hit with two outs and the runner on second…. I think it’s going to be better. And there will be a bunch of guys hitting behind me who are really good.”
Some doubted he’d ever hit enough to play in the majors, and he did. Some others doubt he can stay healthy and be a productive leadoff hitter.
“I’m always the guy that people doubt,” Simmons said, smiling. “It’s always satisfying [to prove skeptics wrong]. This is me. I like looking at the negatives a little bit. I like the criticism. It drives me. I’m going to show people I can lead off. That’s going to be my goal this year, to show them I can hit there.”
It will be an eventful spring for Simmons, who is set to play for the Dutch team in next month’s World Baseball Classic (Curacao is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands). He’ll be in Braves camp for a couple of weeks, then fly halfway around the world to Taiwan for a quick Netherlands training camp before the Pool B round March 2-5.
He's not looking forward to the flight, but is eager to represent his homeland and play alongside Andruw Jones, also from Curacao and was a boyhood idol of Simmons.
“I wanted to do it," Simmons said. "I asked the Braves; they didn’t have an issue with it. It’s a good opportunity to have that competition, to play in those meaningful games.... It’s going to be fun. I got to play with Chipper (Jones), now I’m going to play with Andruw. I’m doing it all."
If his team advances to the next round, Simmons would be away from the Braves until mid-March.
Simmons spent most of the offseason at home in Curacao, eating his mother’s home cooking – his favorites are fish and okra stew – before traveling to Altus, Okla., in January to work out with his former coaches and current players at Western Oklahoma State, the junior college where he was a shortstop and closer with an upper-90s fastball.
“It’s good to see the guys in college, how bad they want it,” he said. “It reminds you that you’re lucky you’re here. It drives you a little more.”