Braves' shortstop prospect finds success

He knows plenty of people questioned his decision to play shortstop instead of pitch in pro ball, and has heard some scouts and other so-called experts doubt whether he will be able to hit against more advanced pitching.

That made his 2011 success that much more gratifying for Braves shortstop prospect Andrelton Simmons, who hit .311 with a .351 on-base percentage at high-A Lynchburg, winning the Carolina League batting title by a whopping 21-point margin in his first full season in the minors.

“I heard the positives and I definitely heard the negatives, the doubts,” said Simmons, an amiable sort who is from Andruw Jones’ island homeland of Curacao. “I always knew I was capable and just keep doing what I do. I make my adjustments, and it worked out pretty good.”

A second-round draft pick in 2010 out of Western Oklahoma State Junior College, Simmons turned 22 in September. At short-season Danville in 2010, he hit .276 with a .340 OBP and 14 extra-base hits in 239 at-bats.

He raised his average 35 points at Lynchburg, where he hit only one homer in 517 at-bats (131 games), but had 35 doubles and six triples. He drew a meager 29 walks, but Simmons also struck out just 43 times in 2011 and has 57 strikeouts in 756 at-bats of minor-league ball.

Not bad for a kid whose best tools are in the field, where he has a cannon for an arm and extremely quick hands. In Baseball America’s midseason survey of Carolina League managers, Simmons was voted the league’s best defensive shortstop, most exciting player and best infield arm.

In the current issue of Baseball America, he’s rated the fourth-best Carolina League prospect.

The Braves have a shortstop ahead of him, Tyler Pastornicky, who excelled in a Triple-A stint and could compete for a major league job in 2012. Simmons needs to continue developing, but the strides he made this past season showed he’s a legitimate prospect at shortstop.

As a college freshman in 2010, he also pitched 20 innings and featured a fastball clocked as high as 98 mph. The Braves considered making him a pitcher, but Simmons wanted to play every day and be a shortstop.

While he knows that pitching could be a fallback if his position-player dream doesn’t work out, his 2011 season only strengthened Simmons’ confidence and determination to make it as a shortstop.

“I don’t mind closing a game. I like that feeling,” he said, smiling. “But I want to be out there [playing] every day.”

After hitting .304 with a .339 OBP and .720 OPS before the All-Star break, Simmons hit .319 with a .363 OBP and .799 OPS after the break, including .351 with 16 extra-base hits, 15 RBIs in 31 games during August and September.

He closed out the season with four consecutive multi-hit games and finished with a .345 average and .850 OPS in 110 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

“Getting my at-bats in, I got time to figure out what I was doing and what I needed to do,” he said. “I had a rough start, then I figured out my mistakes pretty much and fixed them. I’ve still got stuff to work on, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable at the plate right now. I think it’s only going to get better.”

The knock on the 6-foot-2 right-handed hitter was that his swing was too long and would need to be shortened as he climbed the minor league ladder. He worked on that this year.

“Little by little I shortened up my swing,” Simmons said. “I started letting the ball get deeper and using quicker hands instead of just trying to swing hard. It worked out. It’s working out. Staying short, within myself.”