LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Rafael Furcal doesn’t know shortstop prospect Andrelton Simmons, but Furcal did what Simmons hopes to do – jump directly from Class A to the major leagues with the Braves.
Furcal made Atlanta’s opening day roster in 2000 as a 22-year-old with no minor league experience above Class A , then unseated veteran Walt Weiss and went on to win National League Rookie of the Year.
“You’ve got to be mentally and physically ready and don’t change anything,” said Furcal, who doesn’t think the difference in playing levels is such a big deal. “Just keep playing the same way in the major leagues as you played in the minor leagues, because baseball is the same everywhere.”
Simmons, 22, played at high-A Lynchburg in 2011 and is competing with Tyler Pastornicky for the Braves shortstop job. Neither has major league experience. Pastornicky, 22, came to camp as the projected 2012 shortstop after a breakout season in Double-A and Triple-A.
He hit .314 with a .359 on-base percentage, seven homers and 27 stolen bases in 117 games, including .365 with a .407 OBP in 27 games at Triple-A Gwinnett before spraining an ankle.
Pastornicky has played 406 minor league games including 155 above A-ball. Simmons has 193 games, all in rookie league or Class A. But Simmons has played exceptional defense this spring and been a little better offensively (6-for-30, triple, two walks) than Pastornicky (5-for-40, one walk).
“Just let them play,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “Spring training has a way of answering your questions for you. So just continue to play games and watch and observe, and let all those things play out.”
Simmons was drafted as a pitcher and many doubted he could ever hit enough to be a position player. That was before he won the Carolina League batting title with a .311 average at Lynchburg, compiling a .351 on-base percentage with 35 doubles and six triples.
“He answered that question pretty much for us last year,” Wren said. “Going into last season we were worried that we were pushing him a little too fast. He was one of the guys that we were most concerned about breaking camp a year ago, putting him in the Carolina League. He answered that pretty significantly, and just kind of took off from there.”
Furcal, 34, was back at the Braves’ spring training ballpark Monday with the St. Louis Cardinals, whom he helped them win the World Series last fall. He was asked if there was an particularly difficult part of the jump from Class A to the majors 12 years ago.
“For me, nothing,” he said, smiling. “I won Rookie of the Year, hit .295 and played good defense.”
He did make the transition appear seamless in 2000, posting a .394 on-base percentage and 40 stolen bases to go with that .295 average in 131 games for the Braves.
The previous year in the minors, Furcal hit .322 with a .392 OBP and a whopping 96 steals in 126 games at low-A Macon and high-A Myrtle Beach.
He conceded it wasn’t the same playing in the majors and minors, even if he had similar success.
“The thing is, you have to learn to play with big-league guys,” Furcal said. “A lot of base hits you have in the minor leagues are going to be outs in the big leagues. And then some plays you make easy in the minor leagues are going to be tougher [in the majors]. Everybody’s better. The hitters’ approach is better and they hit the ball harder than in the minor leagues.”
He went to spring training as a non-roster invitee in 2000, as did Simmons this spring.
“I expected to play at least in Double-A [in 2000], but I played pretty good in winter ball and I think some scouts from the Braves saw me play over there,” Furcal recalled. “They invited me to come to spring training, and I remember what Fernando Tatis told me – he played on the same team as me in the Dominican Republic – he said you never know what might happen, everybody in spring training is trying to make the team. When they give you the chance try to do the best you can.”