Tyler Pastornicky told reporters in September that he couldn’t afford to think about possibly being the Braves’ shortstop as soon as the 2012 season, that he just needed to keep working and be ready when he got his chance.
It looks like we’re about to find out if he’s ready.
Barring anything unexpected in the next two months, it looks as if the Braves will go into the upcoming season with the speedy rookie as their regular shortstop and veteran Jack Wilson as his backup. The Braves didn’t try to retain slick-fielding, weak-hitting veteran Alex Gonzalez, who signed a free-agent contract with Milwaukee.
Pastornicky had a career-best season in 2011, hitting .314 with a .359 on-base percentage, seven homers and 27 stolen bases in 117 games last season at Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett. He hit .365 in 27 games for Gwinnett before missing the final month with a sprained ankle.
He was added to Atlanta’s roster for the last game of the season but didn’t play in the loss to Philadelphia.
A native of Bradenton, Fla., Pastornicky turned 22 in December and could join Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman to give the Braves three lineup regulars 22 or younger. The last team to win a league championship with three regulars 22 or younger was the 1970 Cincinnati Reds.
This week, Pastornicky talked with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s David O’Brien about the the upcoming season and his possible role with the big-league Braves.
Q: When we asked you in September about possibly being the Braves’ shortstop in 2012, here’s what you said: “I’m just trying to get better. If it’s my time, it’s my time. If it’s not, I’ve just got to wait. I’m just trying to get better, and when they call my name I’m going to be ready.”
Well, does it feel like it’s your time and are you ready?
A: I’m definitely ready. I’ve still got a lot of hard work to do. Hopefully it works out that way, but I definitely feel like I’m ready to go. I’m confident. I think I’m ready to do this.
Q: At what point this winter did you start to really believe you might be the Braves’ shortstop in 2012? Has any team official told you it could go that way, or are you just hearing it from other people?
A: That’s another thing — I truly don’t look at all the media. I’ve got a lot of my friends who send me links and everything. I tell them, guys I don’t want to read it, but it’s just them being friends. I still have to come into camp and play hard. It’s definitely not set by any means. I have to come in and play hard. I haven’t been told anything like that [that he’ll be the starter]. I wouldn’t expect [to be told that before spring training]. I’ve got to go in and show them I’m ready. That’s my job to do.
Q: But how excited are you, and does the possibility drive you more during your offseason workouts?
A: Oh definitely. The opportunity is out there for me, so it’s something that motivates you a little more to get through your workouts, an incentive, having that in the back of your mind that it could possibly happen.
Q: How have you spent the offseason, as far as workouts? Done anything different than past years?
A: Yeah, I got right to it this year and didn’t take much time off. With the ankle injury I had about a month off during the season, so I felt like I was ready to go immediately [in the offseason]. My ankle was healed so I got going. I’ve added about 10, 11 pounds and I feel like I’ve gained some strength and speed. Physically I feel really well.”
Q: Talk a little bit about your plan of going to California to work out with Jack Wilson next month before camp starts. How did that come about?
A: At the end of last year when I got called up the last day of the season, I was talking to him, picking his brain, asking him some questions. He’s a great guy who’s had a great career. He mentioned something about coming out there to work out with him. I didn’t know how serious he was, but we stayed in touch and when he signed [with the Braves] he said ‘Come out, you’ve got a job to win.’ I said let’s do it; can’t turn that down. It just goes to show what type of guy he really is…. I’m going out there Feb. 15, then I’ll go straight to spring training from there.
Q: When were you completely healed from the sprained ankle that sidelined you for the final weeks of the Triple-A season?
A: When I got called up the last day I was pretty much healed, I was doing cuts and everything at that point. Then after the season I came home, saw my trainer and continued to do the rehab and after about another week it was 100 percent healed. It hasn’t restricted me one bit.
Q: Was it beneficial you to get the callup on the last day of the season with the Braves, even though you didn’t get to play in that season-ending loss to the Phillies?
A: Definitely. It was pretty cool getting called up the last day, being in that atmosphere, walking in and seeing the focus, seeing how everything went down. Guys can play a long time in the big leagues and not get to experience something like that. You could see it’s all about winning, not about whether you went 0-for-4 or hit a home run.
It’s tough [losing the season finale and missing the playoffs]. It was not easy being in there, but it was definitely a good experience to get to see that. It just shows you how much it really means to those guys, that it really doesn’t matter what they did in that game or how their season went — a lot of guys in there had a great year, but still they were crushed [after the loss]. It was a good experience for me to be able to see how much it really means to them.
Q: You mentioned in September wanting to regain some weight you’d lost last season and get a little stronger. You say you’ve able to do that this winter?
A: Oh yeah, I got with my trainer and told him what I wanted to be able to accomplish, and we laid out a good workout plan and also a nutrition plan. I got a nutritionist and I’ve been eating good. Lot of proteins, lot of carbs.
Q: What have Jack or other Braves told you about what to expect at spring training?
A: Just to come in and play hard, because everything that I’m going to do is going to be watched. I’m going to be under the microscope, and that’s good. I’m going to ask a lot of questions of guys who have done it before, older guys and guys like Jason [Heyward].
I’m confident, and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think you can go in there and be timid. I’m going to respect the veterans and everything they’re about. But I’m going to go in and be confident. I do think it’s definitely best to go in those first couple of years and do more with your ears than your mouth.
Q: I would imagine that spending some time in big-league camp last year helps you now, to sort of know the lay of the land?
A: For sure. It was a good experience going through that, seeing how guys go through their daily routines, how they get themselves ready. It was beneficial from that aspect.
Q: How long were you in camp?
A: I was there until the first cuts and then got called up for a few [spring training] games.
Q: If you get the starting job, the Braves will have three players 22-or-younger among their regular lineup. Does the first-year success of the other two, Freddie Freeman last year and Jason Heyward in 2010, help you believe you can come in and contribute?
A: Definitely. Jason and Freddie both are extremely talented, but it shows you that young guys can go up there and have success if they play their game and go about their business the right way. It’s a confidence builder to see that from young guys when they go up there.”
Q: Do you have goals in mind for next season, specific statistical goals?
A: Not so much statistical goals. I want to go in camp ready to go, that’s something I’ve said since the end of last year, to go into camp and be able to play my best. Whatever happens [with the roster and lineup], I can’t control a lot of that stuff. I’m going to control what I can control and play hard.
Q: What were you most pleased about with your performance last season – any areas where you set goals and were able to meet them?
A: Yeah, the consistency thing was a big one for me last year. That was my main goal, to be more consistent. In previous years I felt like I had a good year, and then I’d look back at the stats after the season and see I hit .270 and think, oh man. I thought about it a lot and realized I could do better if there weren’t as many ups and downs, if it wasn’t such a rocky ride, if it was smoother. I definitely had a more consistent season [in 2011].
Q: What do you think will be the biggest keys for you to succeed at the big-league level, offensively and defensively?
A: I think just to play my game, not try to be something that I’m not. Play my game and do whatever I can to help the team win. Whatever that is, if that’s bunting, taking an extra base, whatever is asked of me that’s going to help me have a successful season.
Q: How good a base-stealer do you think you can be at the big-league level?
A: Pretty good. I’ve definitely picked the brains of some good base stealers. I think I’m pretty good on the bases, I’m pretty fast and my speed’s gotten better this offseason. I’ve worked on my jumps, and hopefully in camp I’ll get to talk to Michael Bourn and get some tips that he uses.
Q: You came to the Braves from Toronto as part of the July 2010 shortstop trade that sent Yunel Escobar to the Blue Jays for Alex Gonzalez. Now it looks like you’ll be replacing Gonzalez in the lineup. Does it feel like things have moved quickly?
A: Yeah, it’s kind of cool. I was talking about it the other day with a couple of guys I was working out with, how it was the best thing that could have happened to me, to be able to come over here [to the Braves] and show what I can do. It has happened pretty fast, but I put myself in position for it to happen. A lot of it’s to do with the Braves organization, and a lot’s to do with myself, to be able to step up and have the year I had.
Q: You don’t seem overwhelmed by it. Has your dad [third baseman Cliff Pastornicky made it to the majors with Kansas City in 1983] helped you in that regard, helping you prepare mentally?
A: Absolutely. I think having that as backing behind you — from even before I signed, he was telling me what to expect, how to go into it. And ever since then he’s given me heads up, hints on how to go through it. He’s let me learn my lessons and take some bumps and bruises. But a lot of guy can get mixed up in the shuffle and I was able to get through it pretty quick.