Braves call-ups are playing every day, which wasn't always the case

Several Braves call-ups over the past couple of years in the rebuild have either stepped directly into every-day roles or worked their way into starting jobs in their first season in the majors.

Chipper Jones didn't get the experience of playing every day in his first call-up the way some Braves have in the past couple of seasons. (David Tulis/AJC file photo)

This, of course, has not always been the case with the Braves and other teams in the past, because of various circumstances, including team philosophy or, more commonly, a team being in a playoff race and not about to throw a kid into the mix in close games unless they had no better option.

Oh, and money.

While Jason Heyward famously was in the Braves’ lineup from Day 1 of the 2010 season – he homered on opening day shortly after catching the ceremonial first pitch from Hank Aaron in what we thought would be a definitive passing-of-the-torch moment – and Andruw Jones was even more famously relied upon down the stretch and in the postseason as a 19-year-old call-up in 1996, at least as many other prominent Braves got only a figurative toe in the water in their first call-up.

Just to cite two, consider future first-ballot Hall of Famer Chipper Jones and current Braves star Freddie Freeman.

A 21-year-old Chipper made his debut Sept. 11, 1993, as a ninth-inning defensive substitute for shortstop Jeff Blauser in a 13-1 blowout win at San Diego. He played in the field in only two other games that September, similar one-sided wins against the Reds and Expos. He was up for nearly the last three weeks of the season and got a total of four plate appearances in eight games -- and went 2-for-3 with a double and a walk because, well, he was Chipper Jones.

He would’ve been in the Braves’ opening-day lineup a year later if he hadn’t blown out his knee late in spring training, pushing back the full-blown start of his illustrious career by a year.

Freeman made his debut with a start Sept. 1, 2010, 11 days shy of his 21st birthday. He made just one more start while spending the entire final month of the season with the Braves, who won 91 games in Bobby Cox’s final season as manager, got into the postseason as a wild card and lost in a division series against the Giants.

Freeman was with the Braves for a month and appeared in 20 games but had just 24 plate appearances, going 4-for-24 with a double, a homer (off Roy Halladay at Philly), one RBI, no walks and eight strikeouts.

“I had two starts -- one was off Livo (Livan Hernandez) and one was my first game off (the Mets’ Mike) Pelfrey,” Freeman said. “Those were my only two starts. I was going in for (late-innings) defense because Derrek Lee had hurt his wrist or thumb or something like that, and Troy Glaus was playing first. So I kept going in for defense. I think I had (20) games played, but it was usually for the last two innings.

“That was a great experience. I came up with the right veteran guys that kind of showed me the ropes, and it was fun coming into a spot where we were winning so you got to see how every was preparing every night to be in position to win. To be with it all the way through, it was pretty special.”

A year later, Freeman played in 157 games (149 starts) and hit .283 with 32 doubles, 21 homers and a .346 OBP and was National League Rookie of the Year runner-up to teammate Craig Kimbrel, who got all 32 first-place ROY votes.

In the seven years since Freeman’s debut, the game has changed in that so many teams, including the Braves, are going younger. Younger players don’t suck up nearly as much of the payroll, and there aren’t nearly as many productive players able to hang around into their late 30s as there were a decade ago.

In many cases, rebuilding teams or teams not in contention are sprinkling  lineups with a couple or more rookies or prospects for much of the second half of the season.

“Most of them aren’t ready,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I mean, we’re rushing them through the minor leagues now so fast that you never really leave them at any one level to kind of learn the game. They play pretty good at a level, then you move them. Now they’re trying to stay on top in that league and they get it going and then you move them again. We’re not letting them just stay there to where they get confident in their abilities and that, enough to learn the game. Consequently, I’ve seen a lot of them (in the majors who aren’t ready).”

Ozzie Albies, right, supplanted veteran Brandon Phillips at second base the day that Albies arrived from Triple-A and has been the every-day starter since. (AP photo)

But, he added, “Like I say, skills play here (in the majors), talent plays, and then you teach them here. You weather some storms, talk about things, and they’re not a finished product when they get here. They can survive and compete and they’ll learn here now.”

The Braves have had a few of those in the past two seasons, including Dansby Swanson, Johan Camargo and Ozzie Albies, who spent parts of four seasons in the minors but never played as many as 100 games at any level in any season and was still just 20 when he debuted this month and supplanted four-time former Gold Glover Brandon Phillips at second base.

“Guys spending a lot of time in the minor leagues, maybe getting a level at a time (per season), you don’t see that much anymore,” Snitker said.

That’s where the game is now, and there are positives and negatives to the approach. In the case of the Braves, who fell out of wild-card contention with a big drop-off after getting their record to 45-45, the end of the season is giving them a chance to see Albies play every day, after seeing Camargo play for an extended period before he hurt a knee.

Swanson was sent down for a couple of weeks, but returned sooner than expected after the injury to Camargo. And now Swanson has been able to revive his season playing every day again at shortstop.

“The longer they’re up here to see them, you’re right, it’s good -- now we go into the offseason kind of have a pretty good ideal which way we’re going, what you need,” Snitker said. “Camargo came up and all of a sudden started playing good. He’s another one that probably didn’t spend enough time in Triple-A. We tried to give it to him but with injuries and stuff we couldn’t afford that. And he came up and he held his own pretty well.”

Freeman was asked about prospects getting a chance to really get acclimated to the big leagues rather than just one or two starts in a September call-up.

“It’s good. It’s good for us, good for the organization to see the young guys come up,” Freeman said. “Obviously we wish we had a better record right, and I think some of the guys wish they got off to better starts, too. But you’re starting to see some improvement in a lot of them at the right time, making strides when they need to, finishing up the year strong, so hopefully they can continue to do that for the next six weeks.”

Not all prospects are ready to be thrown into the fire and an organization has the responsibility to figure out as best as it can which ones might not be ready and might not benefit from the experience if they have mostly failure.

“It can be good and bad,” Freeman said. “That’s what the scouting department is for, to determine if they’re ready to throw them into the fire. When the last couple of years there hasn’t really been a  fire to be thrown because we haven’t been winning. So I think when you get thrown into the fire that’s when you’re in the playoff hunt. These guys, it’s not big on ‘we have to win tonight’; a lot of people around here are looking about getting their feet wet.

“As a veteran guy that’s now what you want to hear, because every year the goal is the make the playoffs. If it’s come to the point that they need to get their feet we, then they need to get their feet wet. Because I expect to win every single year. And that’s what this organization should be expected to do. And they need to get their feet wet and be ready to roll come next year.”

• Listening to Merle and Willie's Pancho and Lefty album today, and this song always resonates. Particularly since Hag died and Willie's had some health issues lately. Regardless, it's just a terrific song. "The low is always lower than the high...."

“REASONS TO QUIT” by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson

Merle and Willie

Reasons to quit

The smoke and booze don't do me like before

And I'm hardly ever sober

And my old friends don't come around much anymore

Reasons to quit

The low is always lower than the high

And the reasons to quit

Don't outnumber all the reasons why

So we keep smokin' and we keep drinkin'

Havin' fun and never thinkin'

Laughin' at the price tag that we pay

And we keep roarin' down the fast lane

Like two young men feelin' no pain

And the reason for quittin's

Gettin' bigger each day

Reasons to quit

I can't afford the habit all the time

I need to be sober

I need to write some new songs that will rhyme

Reasons to quit

They have no rhyme or reason when you're high

And the reasons to quit

Don't outnumber all the reasons why

And we keep smokin' and we keep drinkin'

Havin' fun, never thinkin'

And laughin' at the price tag that we pay

And we keep roarin' down the fast lane

Like two young men feelin' no pain

And the reason for quittin's

Gettin' bigger each day

And the reason for quittin's

Gettin' bigger each day

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About the Author

David O'Brien
David O'Brien
David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002.