Glance around the crowded Braves spring-training clubhouse and you’ll notice several lockers on the major league side of the room that are being shared by two prospects apiece, and the pairings and location of those lockers are anything but coincidence.
Top shortstop prospects Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies – Albies just 19 and on the big-league side of the clubhouse – are in one stall, next to veteran shortstop Erick Aybar.
Center-field prospect Mallex Smith is paired with his friend, pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins, in a stall between veteran outfielders Ender Inciarte and Michael Bourn.
Outfield prospect Braxton Davidson and third-base prospect Rio Ruiz are paired in a stall two down from veteran right fielder Nick Markakis.
With so many non-roster invitees (29) in spring training, there were going to be plenty of NRIs on the big-league side of the clubhouse. But what stands out is how many of them are prospects, including some with no chance of making the opening-day roster – but the expectation of being key pieces for the Braves in the not-too-distant future.
The Braves rebuilt their farm system in a 15-month span, turning what had been rated a bottom-five system into what ESPN’s Keith Law this month rated the No. 1 system in baseball. The Braves then invited most of the top prospects from that group to camp, to begin bonding together and getting a taste of big-league life.
“I think that’s the reason, and I think the other reason was, we talked about pairing some of these guys with some of the guys (who can help them),” said Dave Trembley, Braves director of player development. “Like I say, I can teach you how to play, I can teach you the fundamentals, but I can’t show you. The best teacher is the guy who’s done it.”
Not only are some of those prospects lockered next to highly respected veterans who play the same position as them, they also will be paired in groups with those players in drills early in camp. The Braves’ first full-squad workout is Thursday.
“I want Braxton Davidson and Markakis (together), I want him to watch (Markakis),” Trembley said. “I want Mallex Smith to watch Bourn. We want Swanson to watch Aybar. We want the pitchers to watch these other guys. We want guys to watch (veteran catcher A.J.) Pierzynski and (veterans’) routine and how they go about it. I want (pitching prospect Lucas) Sims to be here with these guys who’ve been here, and I want them to watch (veteran relievers Jason) Grilli and (Jim) Johnson, see how they go about it.”
Jenkins, the Braves’ minor league pitcher of the year after being traded from St. Louis in November 2014, said it’s been made clear from the organization how much they believe in the young players and how they want them to learn from current veterans and former Braves.
“They’re putting us in the best position to be successful,” Jenkins said. “They’re teaching us the right things. This is an organization with so much history and pride, so many Hall of Famers that, I mean, you want to be that next Hall of Famer.
“With what they’re doing and the guys we have around us – the mentors that come here, the special assistants – you have no choice but to be going in the right direction.”