Andrelton Simmons is an artist so 2014 season is a fresh canvas

Braves give Simmons a 7-year, $58 million contract

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionFebruary 25, 2014 

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Andrelton Simmons sat at his locker last week, opening boxes of equipment shipped to him by companies that he has deals with, most notably Mizuno. He opened a big box containing three gloves, the leather tanned, smelling like really good, new leather smells.

Two gloves were noticeably smaller than the other. The two were his workout gloves, which most shortstops use to catch balls in the center, so that when they use their regular, larger gloves, it gives them that much more margin for error. Not that Simmons needs much margin or makes many errors, of course.

Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in the game. Actually, most observers these days seem to be in agreement that he's the best defensive player in the game, period.

The Platinum Glove he won from Rawlings last fall signified that he was the best defender in the NL, and metric stats say that no other shortstop has been close to as good as he's been since Simmons, 24, arrived in the big leagues early in the 2012 season.

And after playing fewer than two seasons, and despite an OBP under .300 in 2013, the Braves showed how highly they and others think of Simmons' defense and power and overall package of skills by giving him a seven-year, $58 million contract Thursday. A deal that really looks like a bargain for the Braves, considering the eight-year, $120 million contract that the Rangers gave Elvis Andrus a year ago, when Andrus was the same age as Simmons is now (albeit with 2 1-3 more seasons of major league service).

So anyway, Simmons sat at his locker, opened the big box, took out individual boxes within the box, and from those individual boxes he pulled out cloth bags, each containing a glove. He put the first glove on his left hand, pounded it in the palm with his right fist, gave a satisfied look, then did the same with the second glove. …

Watching him, it didn't feel like just watching any ballplayer go through this mundane task after reporting to spring training. It felt more like watching an artist testing out new brushes and the color of the paints on his palette.

Because watching highlight reels of Simmons, or just focusing on him throughout the course of a game, is akin to watching an artist, rather than a mere ballplayer.

He makes art out of fielding grounders, turning double plays and throwing laser beams from the back cut of the infield.

So anyway, Simmons has been one of the first to arrive at spring training in the past, but had visa issues this year and only got here on reporting day.

But he's here now, looking more fit than ever, with a few added pounds of muscle -- not the 10 that he hoped to add this offseason, but enough, he said.

"Getting stronger," he said. "I just got my grip strength tested, and it's good." He's just under 200 pounds. "Hopefully I stay around where I'm at, 195, 197. It depends. If I feel good heavier, why not? But I feel comfortable where I'm at right now." He's not married, lived back home while in Curacao. Ate his mother's cooking ever day. Including an island specialty, fish soup.

"We had fish, we had chicken, lot of rice," Simmons said. Good stuff."

Three months at home was about a month more than he's spent there in recent years. But the visa problems didn't permit him to leave on time and go back to Oklahoma to work out with the team from his former junior college, as he's done in previous years.

"It was a pretty good offseason," he said, smiling. "Mom got tired of me though. I stayed there too long. I stayed a month longer than I wanted to."

Now he's here. Spring training is under way. Simmons is doing his thing at shortstop every day, fielding balls, throwing to first. He loves taking infield, always has. Terry Pendleton said he sometimes has to run him off the field, or the guy will stay out there so long he'll wear himself out.

Stand back, folks. Artist at work.

Note: Three-time All-Star catcher Javy Lopez will be inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame on May 23, along with longtime former trainer Dave Pursley and the late Boston Braves shortstop Rabbit Maranville.

Lopez, 43, hit .287 with 260 home runs in 15 major league seasons, including 214 homers and 694 RBIs in parts of 12 seasons for the Braves. He was MVP of the 1996 National League Championship Series in his first season as the primary starter for the Braves, after sharing the catching duties for two seasons.

One of the most popular Braves in his time with the team, Lopez hit 23 or more home runs six times for Atlanta, and batted .328 with career-highs of 43 home runs and 109 RBIs in 2003 in his final season in Atlanta. He finished fifth in the league MVP balloting.

He signed with Baltimore as a free agent after the 2003 season and retired after playing 2½ seasons with the Orioles and finishing with 18 games for Boston in 2006. …

The Braves have agreed to terms on one-year contracts with 19 players, including catcher Evan Gattis, left-handers Alex Wood and Luis Avilan and right-handers David Carpenter and Cory Gearrin.

Among other players who saw time with Atlanta in 2013 who have new deals are outfielder Jose Constanza, infielder Tyler Pastornicky, outfielder Joey Terdoslavich and right-handers David Hale and Anthony Varvaro.

Catcher Christian Bethancourt, competing for a backup job behind Gattis, outfielder Todd Cunningham and right-handers Juan Jaime, Aaron Northcraft and Wirfin Obispo also agreed to deals.

Left-handers Ryan Buchter and Carlos Perez and infielders Ernesto Mejia and Elmer Reyes also have one-year deals.

The Braves open their spring training exhibition schedule against the Tigers on Wednesday.

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