I'm going to go ahead and assume the Atlanta Braves wish they hadn't traded Yunel Escobar to Toronto. They had their reasons, sure, and maybe Escobar would've been a problem if he stayed with Atlanta, but last year Escobar was a 28-year-old everyday shortstop with a .369 OBP. He's a good player. Maybe a very good one, if you like his defense.
The Braves did get stuff back for Escobar, though. Notably, they got Alex Gonzalez, who they used at short for a year and a half, and they got Tyler Pastornicky. Back then, Pastornicky was a 20-year-old middle infielder in the low minors. But he's developed since, and after finding success at triple-A at the end of 2011, Pastornicky was likely to be the Braves' shortstop in 2012. Sure, they signed Jack Wilson, but Jack Wilson was signed as insurance; Pastornicky was to start, until or unless he showed he couldn't do it.
Enter spring training. One wouldn't have thought that Pastornicky was facing much competition, especially after Jack Wilson got injured like Jack Wilson does. But today is Monday, March 12, and there's talk of competition between Pastornicky and a relatively unseasoned prospect. David O'Brien:
The idea seemed highly unlikely when spring training began. But with each terrific play he makes and every self-assured stride he takes, Braves shortstop prospect Andrelton Simmons looks more like a major leaguer.
Here's what we know right now: Pastornicky is 3-for-26 in spring training, having played decent defense. Simmons is 3-for-12 in spring training, having played outstanding defense. Simmons has played the kind of defense of which people take notice, which is not a very easy thing to do.
Adds Chipper Jones:
"He's got it," third baseman Chipper Jones said of Simmons, who started a split-squad game alongside him Friday. "He's major league-ready defensively, there's no doubt about that. When everybody says that he's major league-ready defensively, they're saying it for a reason."
Here's what else we know right now: Pastornicky has 128 games of experience in double-A, and 27 games of experience in triple-A. Simmons spent all of last season with advanced-A Lynchburg. Both shortstops are 22, and Pastornicky's actually younger by a few months, but Pastornicky is the more experienced of the two in terms of having faced tough competition.
Pastornicky is more advanced. Between the highest two levels of the minors last year, he batted .314/.359/.414. He doesn't have a lot of power and he doesn't draw a lot of walks, but he makes contact and fields his position acceptably well. It stands to reason that Pastornicky is still the heavy favorite to be the Braves' starter come April. Yet his odds might be lower than they were a couple weeks ago. Pastornicky has generated negative attention, while Simmons has generated positive attention. Pastornicky needs that to change in the weeks ahead.
It's not like Simmons is poised to be an offensive superstar. Last year he hit one home run, and drew 29 walks. But, like Pastornicky, he hits the ball, and he moves very well. Shortstop is one of those positions where teams will take an offensive hit in order to get plus defense.
In Baseball America's 2012 Prospect Handbook, Simmons is rated as the Braves' No. 4 prospect, while Pastornicky is rated as the Braves' No. 7 prospect. Even though they acknowledge that Pastornicky seems closer, they say that Simmons is the shortstop of the future. His stock is rising. Even right now, as we speak.
The winner of this competition is probably still going to be Pastornicky. Even though Rafael Furcal advanced straight from single-A to the majors, that's a gamble, and the Braves don't need to rush Simmons through. They can give Pastornicky time to find his feet. They can give him at least a month or two of the season.
But if Pastornicky does win the job, that doesn't mean he's going to hold the job. When spring-training competitions are over, regular-season competitions begin, and Simmons will probably keep on pushing from the minors. Which would mean that Pastornicky would have to succeed in the majors, or else the job he fought to earn might not be his for as long as he'd like.