If you ask many Braves fans what their most disappointing trade during the rebuild was, the answer would be the trade that sent shortstop Andrelton Simmons to the Angels for shortstop Erick Aybar and right-handers Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis. Of those three players, only Newcomb is still in the organization; Aybar was traded to acquire catcher Kade Scivicque and Ellis was part of the player package sent to the Cardinals for left-hander Jaime Garcia, who is also no longer part of the organization.
Meanwhile, Simmons is still a regular fixture on the highlight reels, building his resume as the finest defensive shortstop of his generation. To pour salt into the wound, Simmons’s bat — the reason the Braves deemed him expendable — came round to post an above average major league season. At the same time, the Braves designated Shortstop Savior came up snake-eyes in his first full year. That all said, there’s plenty of reasons to anticipate better production at the position in 2018.
STARTER: Dansby Swanson
The consensus top prospect in the organization going into 2017, expectations were sky-high for Swanson after he hit .302/.361/.442 for Atlanta in the final six weeks of the 2016 regular season. Unfortunately for Swanson and the Braves, Swanson got off to a miserable start. At first, it seemed that Swanson was the victim of extraordinary bad luck; a pattern that included line drives being snagged by infielders, outfielders making good plays against him, culminating in a horrifying .188 BABiP for April. His hits started finding more dirt, and he was pretty much on fire for most of June. On June 27, Swanson went hitless to end a 9-game hitting streak.
Then he went hitless again. Twenty-one games go by and Swanson was mired in a 7-for-59 slump. And unlike April, there was nothing to suggest that this was an unlucky stretch. Swanson was getting over-matched, and he looked lost, especially against breaking and off-speed pitches. The Braves ended up sending him to AAA for the first time in his career in an effort for him to get his swing back. We’ll never know how long Swanson would have stayed in Gwinnett, because he was recalled only 13 days later after an injury to Johan Camargo. Swanson didn’t blow open any doors upon his return, but his batting profile more resembled his June best than his July worst.
What does this all mean? Dansby Swanson is still the same guy who was the top prospect in the system a year ago. He’s a talented player that had a disappointing first full season in the majors, much like hundreds of players before him. There’s no guarantees in life, and exactly that many in baseball as well, but there’s nothing to suggest Swanson isn’t capable of being the all-round talent he was projected to be.
BACK-UP: Charlie Culberson
Culberson is a plus defender at shortstop and should be the primary back-up and spot starter. If Swanson ends up missing any longer stretch of time however, it’s possible the team may slide Johan Camargo over to shortstop and play Rio Ruiz at third base, keeping Culberson on the bench.
GWINNETT STRIPERS (CLASS AAA)
STARTER: Tyler Smith
Smith was drafted by the Braves in the minor league portion of December’s Rule V draft, an odd position for a player who had finally made it to the show for the Mariners in 2017. Smith doesn’t flash great tools and likely won’t figure much into Atlanta’s infield picture, but he’s a capable defender at shortstop that can put the ball in play.
BACK-UP: Sean Kazmar
Kazmar received a non-roster spring training invite and will be looking to make a good impression for a possible spot in a utility role. Kazmar did have a power surge at AAA last year, and the Braves may just be looking to see if it was a true change to his batting profile or a one-year fluke. If Kazmar returns to Gwinnett, he will get plenty of playing time filling in at all of the infield positions and occasionally the outfield.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
STARTER: Dylan Moore
After an impressive offensive campaign at the high-A level and the Arizona Fall League in 2016, Moore had a miserable year at the plate for AA Mississippi last year. After bouncing around multiple positions by the Rangers organization (he was acquired in the Jeff Francoeur deal late in 2016), the Braves installed him at shortstop and kept him there. While his bat disappeared until the last six weeks of the season, Moore handled shortstop fairly well. He doesn’t have great range or a cannon arm, but makes all the plays he gets to. If Moore can bring his bat around, he can quickly find himself back in the running for a major league bench job.
BACK-UP: Luis Valenzuela
Valenzuela’s arm is stretched at shortstop. but he gets to plenty of grounders and is a perfectly adequate back-up. Organizational infielder Omar Obregon or minor league free agent Cleuluis Rondon could also play a role here.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
STARTER: Alejandro Salazar
Salazar didn’t take the offensive advancements many were hoping in his first year at high-A. Salazar has good hand-eye skills that benefit him in the field and also allow him to make a good bit of contact, but so much of it is on the ground that he has exhibited almost no offensive value. Salazar will need to start generating more line drives or exhibiting more patience to take a few more walks to continue advancing.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Marcus Mooney
A leader of his collegiate team at the University of South Carolina, Mooney brought those same skills to Rome last season and help solidify a porous defense after being installed as an everyday player in May. Mooney can provide that same service for the high-A Fire Frogs at multiple positions. As a hitter, Mooney is limited by his lack of power or patience, but has solid hand-eye coordination and bat control.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
STARTER: Riley Delgado
To say the middle infield mix at Rome could be in flux is a bit of an understatement. The loss of the likes of prospects Kevin Maintan, Yunior Severino, and Livan Soto have left a talent gap. Derian Cruz, last season’s deposed starting shortstop, could conceivably move back from second base, but given his troubles I think the organization will keep him at the position he ended at with Danville.
Of the remaining candidates, I’m going to guess Delgado gets the first crack here. A 9th-round senior sign in the 2017 draft out of Middle Tennessee State, Delgado is a steady hand at shortstop and has good bat-to-ball skills similar to Marcus Mooney.
BACK-UP: Nick King
A former Georgia Bulldog defensive standout at shortstop, King went undrafted after his senior year. He was picked up by the Pirates organization, and last season floated round the lower minor league levels, picking up 149 plate appearances between the Pirates’ Gulf Coast, New York-Penn, and the South Atlantic League’s West Virginia Power. If King makes the club, he can understudy all three infield skill positions.
DANVILLE BRAVES (Rookie League)
STARTER: Jeremy Fernandez
Honestly, due to MLB sanctions there’s not a lot to choose from in projecting the middle infield down to the Danville level, and the starter will almost certainly be someone acquired by the organization in the 2018 draft. For now, Fernandez is as good a guess as any.
BACK-UP: Luis Ovando
Sure, let’s go with Ovando here too. Again, the reality is that the primary Danville infielders are probably not in the organization right now.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The position for now belongs to Dansby Swanson, unless the organization decides to switch out Swanson with incumbent second baseman Ozzie Albies. In either case, the team will need to see progress from the former first overall draft pick, but it’s not necessarily a make-or-break season either. The top prospect in the system just finished the year playing second base in Danville.
OFR TOP 5 SHORTSTOP PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Derian Cruz
- Alejandro Salazar
- Tyler Smith
- Marcus Mooney
- Riley Delgado