The Atlanta Braves starting shortstop job for 2012 was all set to be taken by Tyler Pastornicky. But the Braves were going to make him earn the position.
Perhaps the last position battle of spring training was finally settled on Monday, as initially reported by FOXSports.com's Jon Paul Morosi, when the Braves named Pastornicky their shortstop over fellow 22-year-old rookie Andrelton Simmons. Manager Fredi Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren were determined to let this competition go down to the very end, and that's exactly how it played out.
The pressure of trying to win a big league job appeared to affect Pastornicky early in the spring. Several observers noticed him pressing at the plate, and the effects were noticeable as he struggled to hit .150.
That opened an opportunity for Simmons to impress Braves executives and coaches with stellar defense at shortstop. If Pastornicky wasn't going to hit, Atlanta could at least have a plus defender at the position. But asking a prospect to make the jump from Single-A, where Simmons played last year, to the majors was presenting him with a formidable task.
As B/R's minor league expert Mike Rosenbaum wrote, the Braves needed Pastornicky to win the job. Not just for the obvious reason that they needed a starting shortstop, but because he was making a steady progression through their organization and the natural step was for him to be in the majors this year.
Pastornicky hadn't exactly shown he had conquered Class AAA after 27 games with Gwinnett last season. But he did excel, with a .365/.407/.413 slash average. No one was expecting him to hit that well in the big leagues, but the hope was that Pastornicky would hit respectably.
With favor leaning toward Simmons, something finally clicked for Pastornicky on March 22 versus the Miami Marlins. He hit 4-for-5, boosting his batting average from .159 to .224. That seemed to get Pastornicky over a hurdle. His bat was hardly on fire from there on, but he hit just well enough to give him an edge over Simmons.
For all the excitement over Simmons' defense, his bat most definitely wasn't major league ready. By last weekend, he had missed the last four games with a strained left side and his average had dropped to .186. That obviously wasn't good enough for the Braves to choose him over Pastornicky. Bringing him up with the big-league club would've been rushing him and his development would've suffered.
So the shortstop situation fell into place as the Braves had hoped. Perhaps it never really was a competition. Pastornicky just needed to wake up. But Gonzalez may have also wanted to see just how his two shortstop prospects dealt with the pressure of a position battle.
The Braves manager doesn't want Pastornicky to get too comfortable, however. Just because he has the job now doesn't mean it's his for the season.
“We’ll let him play,” Gonzalez told The Atlanta Journal Constitution's David O'Brien. “We’re comfortable until he makes us uncomfortable, but right now we’re moving forward.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement there. But it was probably as honest an assessment as Gonzalez could offer. Pastornicky hardly set the Grapefruit League on fire this spring.
However, if it's any consolation, Simmons has to make the Braves comfortable too before any move is made. Pastornicky should have some room to fail to begin the season.