After Braves breakup, Andrelton Simmons brings heart to Halos

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Talented young players like to think they'll be among the fortunate few to spend their entire careers in a Derek Jeter-Craig Biggio state of bliss with their first organization, and Andrelton Simmons was no different. The pride of Mundo Nobo, Curacao, won his first Gold Glove with the Atlanta Braves at age 24, signed a seven-year, $58 million contract extension shortly thereafter, and had every reason to believe he would remain with the club for the move to the new ballpark in 2017.

Reality typically intervenes when a player gets too old or expensive to keep around, or an organization changes direction. During the GM meetings in November, Simmons' name began popping up in trade rumors. The hammer dropped when he received a phone call from the Atlanta front office telling him he had been traded to the Los Angeles Angels.

Three months have passed since the news, and a life-changing event can now be filed away as just another winter transaction. Simmons is lockering between Albert Pujols and Mike Trout this spring and preparing to play home games in the shadow of Disneyland, so why waste time being bitter?

"It's like breaking up with your first girlfriend," Simmons said. "It's a little heartbreaking at first. You plan like it's gonna be forever, and after it's over, you wish them the best. I'm with my new girlfriend now, and I'm focused on this team and helping them win now."

While it's unclear if the Angels were attracted to Simmons because he likes puppies and long walks on the beach, Los Angeles' front office fell head over heels in love with his ability to cover ground at shortstop and turn base hits into outs. Sooner rather than later, the two parties will learn if theirs is a match made in first-division heaven.

For much of the winter, rumors swirled that the Angels would add some heft to the offense by signing a free agent with the pedigree of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes, but they ultimately settled for a Craig Gentry-Daniel Nava platoon in left field. New general manager Billy Eppler also took a measured approach at second base, passing on Daniel Murphy and Howie Kendrick and bringing in Cliff Pennington on a short-team deal to provide some competition for incumbent Johnny Giavotella.

Amid numerous reports that the Angels refrained from big-ticket acquisitions because owner Arte Moreno was intent on staying below MLB's $189 million luxury tax threshold, Eppler offers a more nuanced summary of events.

"It's like breaking up with your first girlfriend. It's a little heartbreaking at first. You plan like it's gonna be forever, and after it's over, you wish them the best. I'm with my new girlfriend now, and I'm focused on this team and helping them win now."
Andrelton Simmons, on his trade from Atlanta to Anaheim.

"That became the narrative, but it's not something that was a mandate," Eppler said. "From our standpoint, the timing and the circumstances did not really intersect. When I say timing, I'm talking about the term [of the contract]. The circumstances were the financial impact. They never intersected at a point where we felt comfortable making that decision."

The lone departure from the Angels' blah offseason came when Eppler sent pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, veteran shortstop Erick Aybar, and $2.5 million in cash to Atlanta for Simmons and catcher Jose Briceno. The move elicited a collective "wow" from Angels players monitoring the Hot Stove.

"It was kind of crazy," outfielder Kole Calhoun said. "Being an Angel, I've only known Erick Aybar as our shortstop. That guy has been a staple and a rock in our clubhouse for years. To see him move, my initial feeling was, 'Man, that's a teammate and a friend who's not going to be with us.' Then you hear we're getting Simmons in return, and the excitement kicks in. You realize you're going to get to play with a guy who's an incredible talent and one of the best shortstops in the game. Very cool."

Simmons changes the dynamic in Anaheim with his run-saving ability. But at what cost? Newcomb stands 6 feet 5, 245 pounds, throws a fastball in the mid-90s and is considered potential top-of-the-rotation starter material, and Ellis has a chance to be a solid middle-rotation type. They were the best of a weak crop of minor leaguers in Anaheim, and their departures have generated reviews of the Angels' talent pipeline that range from merely critical to "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2"-caliber scathing.

ESPN's Keith Law, like Baseball America, ranked the Angels' farm system last among the 30 MLB teams in advance of the 2016 season. "I've been doing these rankings for eight years now, and this is by far the worst system I've ever seen," Law wrote in February.

Though Eppler acknowledges how painful it was to tap the minor-league pipeline, he cites a "scarcity issue" as the main impetus behind the Simmons trade. The Angels assessed their options and couldn't resist the opportunity to fill a short-term hole and a long-term need by acquiring a 26-year-old, middle-infield dynamo.

Eppler, who left a job in the Yankees' front office to become the Angels' GM in October, gained an appreciation for the importance of shortstop stability through 10 years of watching Jeter in the Bronx.

"There was a time period in New York where we knew, 'Hey, someday we're going to need a shortstop,' " Eppler said. "But it's something you end up taking for granted year after year when you have Mr. Reliable and Mr. Clutch out there. In my estimation, if shortstop isn't the most important position, it's the second most important position on the field defensively [behind catcher]."

Although Simmons lost out to San Francisco's Brandon Crawford in National League Gold Glove balloting last season, he still ranked an impressive second to Crawford among big league shortstops with 20 defensive runs saved and added to his smorgasbord of YouTube highlight clips. He has dazzled his new teammates early in camp with his slick footwork and legerdemain during back-field drills.

"First of all, he's super quick," Pennington said. "He doesn't appear to be rushed in any way. Some of the guys here can probably do the feeds as fast as him if they're trying to do it, but that's just his normal.

"He's got a cannon, but he also has a quick release and the ball is on the money every time. Some guys have good arms, but their ball runs a lot and it can be tough on a first baseman. His [throws] are like catching a pillow."

While Simmons clearly upgrades the Angels' defense, he is not an ideal fit in some respects. According to Fangraphs, the Angels' staff ranked last in the majors with a 41.5 percent ground ball rate in 2015; it's much more of a fly ball group. And Giavotella, Simmons' new double-play partner, ranked 34th among MLB second basemen with a defensive runs saved of minus-12, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Simmons might help compensate for Giavotella's shortcomings, but Pennington could be the better fit if the Angels plan to stress defense.

At the plate, Simmons fits right in with manager Mike Scioscia's desire to move runners and put pressure on opposing defenses with the hit-and-run. Simmons hit only four home runs last season, down from a high of 17 in 2013. But he gets the bat head to the ball and had the 12th best contact rate of any hitter in the majors in 2015.

As he eagerly awaits the transition to the American League, in a new city on a different coast, Simmons is tending to details in both his baseball and personal life. He's in the process of finding a place near Anaheim, and lots of people have offered suggestions.

"People say, 'Live next to the beach,' " Simmons said. "I came from an island [Curacao], so I've lived next to the beach. It's not a priority for me."

Priority No. 1 this season will be acclimating on the field and making the Angels feel good about taking the plunge for him. Hearts mend, new relationships form, and each day brings another game. As long as Andrelton Simmons packs his glove for the trip to Anaheim, he should be fine.