Ozzie Albies was the youngest and smallest player on the field through most of his minor league career and his two-month call-up to with the Braves in 2017, but the second baseman’s stature and impact were anything but undersized.
The dynamo from Curacao silenced skeptics who wondered if he was too small to excel at the higher levels. Now he is the middle infielder, not Dansby Swanson, being most counted upon by the Braves to spark the offense and help take a big step back toward contention in 2018.
Albies had the Braves’ only extra-base hit (double) and scored their only run in Monday’s 5-1 exhibition loss to Yankees at SunTrust Park. With his family in from Curacao for the game, the 21-year-old put the finishing touches on an impressive spring training in which Albies hit .303 (20-for-66) with six extra-base hits (three homers), three stolen bases, a .343 OBP and a .500 slugging percentage.
His slugging percentage ranked fourth-highest on the team among Braves with at least 40 at-bats this spring, behind outfield phenom Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman and Preston Tucker, an outfield candidate whose power is his primary asset.
“I feel great right now, I just want to keep it going through the whole season,” said the 5-foot-8 switch-hitter, who homered and doubled in two games against the Yankees in the past three days. “I’m ready.”
His work in Grapefruit League play was a continuation of what the Braves saw late last season from Albies, who debuted Aug. 1 at age 20 and hit .286 with a .354 OBP, .810 OPS, six homers, 28 RBIs and eight stolen bases in 57 games for the Braves, all starts at second base.
“What he did last year when he came up was pretty special and very exciting,” said Freeman, who likes having Albies batting second in front of him. “And he’s continued it in the spring. I think he’s going to be a very special player for a long time in this game.
“He works hard, and he’s like the perfect guy in this lineup. He can do everything -- switch-hit, he plays great defense, he can hit, he can run. So I think a full season of him is going to be good.”
So does Braves manager Brian Snitker, who enjoys penciling Albies’ name in the lineup and watching him put pressure on opposing teams and play solid and sometimes-spectacular defense.
“Whenever he plays, he’s going to be the highlight of something, I think,” Snitker said “Because he’s an exciting player. He’s steady, and I’m not surprised by anything anymore. He’s just a really good little player.”
Albies’ performance as a rookie was made even more impressive by the fact he was limited during the previous offseason after breaking his elbow swinging at a pitch during a Double-A playoff game in October 2016. He wasn’t cleared to begin full activities until after 2017 spring training was underway, but Albies had kept his muscular 5-foot-8 body in shape and was ready to go when he got the green light.
“It’s definitely tough coming back from injuries,” Braves veteran right fielder Nick Markakis said. “He’s a strong little (expletive). He works hard, takes pride in his game, and it shows on the field. He’s the type of young guy you want coming up, and you want the guys after him to watch him and how he goes about his business. Because he’s a special player, and he’s going to be a in Braves uniform for a while.”
Albies spent the winter in Curacao working to hone swing adjustments he made last year with Braves minor league hitting coaches, with special instructor Chipper Jones – who worked specifically with Albies at Triple-A Gwinnett on the switch hitter’s left-handed swing – and with Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer.
At home during the offseason, Albies set up his phone to video his daily workouts and said he watched the video repeatedly at night, examining his swing before he went to bed.
“He’s real into his game,” Snitker said. “He’s a very dedicated guy and focused. He works hard. It’s every day. He gets after it. I don’t think he’s the kind of kid that’s ever going to take anything for granted. He’s always going to prepare.”
Seitzer lauded Albies for his work ethic and willingness to make in-season tweaks last season, the two of them going over things in indoor batting cages at the ballpark each day before regular batting practice, working to calm Albies’ high leg kick from the left side and reduce other movement in his swing, which he did successfully.
After hitting just .179 (10-for-56) with four extra-base hits and a .569 OPS in his first 16 games, Albies hit .323 with 16 extra-base hits (four triples, four homers) and an .892 OPS in 41 games the rest of the season and also stole seven bases in that span.
His pace over his past 41 games would yield 206 hits, 16 triples, 16 homers and 28 stolen bases in 162 games.
Swanson, who became close friends with Albies in the minor leagues, said he’s not surprised by the diminutive second baseman’s success at the big-league level.
“First time that I got acclimated with the Braves, people would tell me how good he was,” said Swanson, who was traded to the Braves from Arizona in December 2015. “And he definitely hasn’t disappointed. He’s a great kid and a great player. He expects a lot out of himself, and he goes out there and does it.
“We’re definitely happy to have him on our team and looking forward to having him for the rest of this year and many years to come.”