If you've watched any of the Netherlands' games in the World Baseball Classic, you've seen what Braves fans enjoyed last year: the impending stardom of shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
Simmons has flashed the leather that impressed so many during his 49-game rookie stint with Atlanta, making several outstanding plays, but he's also hitting .417 in the WBC, including a huge two-run, game-tying home run in the eighth inning against Cuba on Monday. Simmons isn't known for his power, but yanked a pretty good pitch -- a low and away slider from Cuban lefty Norberto Gonzalez -- out to left field. When the Netherlands scored in the bottom of the ninth, it advanced to the semifinals and Cuba was eliminated.
Simmons is one of the great draft stories in recent years. As a 16-year-old in Curacao, he turned down some small offers to turn pro. Years later, Western Oklahoma State Junior College coach Kurt Russell saw him on a scouting trip and brought him to the States, where he immediately impressed as a 20-year-old freshman in 2010. Some teams saw Simmons as a pitcher due to the 98-mph fastball he flashed while pitching a little bit, but the Braves drafted him in the second round and let him play shortstop.
Two years later, he was in the majors. There have been concerns about his bat, due to a lack of power -- he won the Carolina League batting title in 2011, but hit just one home run -- and low walk rate, but he's not without skills as a hitter. He hit 35 doubles in 2011 and had 27 extra-base hits between Double-A and the majors last year in 385 plate appearances. He's also just 23 with two-plus years of pro experience, so the power is still developing. He'll never be a big walk guy, but that's not because he's a wild swinger; he puts the ball in play and has a low strikeout rate. He hit .289/.335/.416 for the Braves last year and I believe that contact ability means he can hit around .300 consistently in the majors.
If he does that and turns into a guy who hits 30 doubles and 10 home runs per season, with his ability in the field, he'll become one of the more valuable assets in baseball. His defensive metrics last year with the Braves were off the charts, with 19 Defensive Runs Saved -- ranking second behind Brendan Ryan. Remember, he played just a third of a season. UZR also loved his fielding, ranking him fourth behind Ryan, Clint Barmes and J.J. Hardy.
I hate to say this, but Simmons has -- yes -- Ozzie Smith-like potential in the field. I don't know if anyone has Ozzie's first-step quickness, but Simmons is close and has a stronger arm than the Wizard. The scouting reports on Simmons back up what the metrics suggest, that he's already an elite fielder, maybe the best shortstop in the game. Even as a kid in Class A ball, scouts said he was ready to play the position in the majors. That's why the Braves didn't hesitate to promote him after just a couple months in Double-A.
How good will Simmons be? Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is widely acknowledged as the best all-around shortstop in the game. While Simmons certainly can't match Tulo's power at the plate, Tulowitzki's injury history is a huge flag. I'm not saying I'd take Simmons (ignoring salaries), but I think Simmons will hit enough this year that the question will be tossed out there: Is he the best shortstop in the majors?