Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Ozzie Albies ready for when Braves call

St. Louis baserunner Jeremy Hazelbaker safely steals second base, beating the tag by Atlanta shortstop Ozzie Albies during the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game in March.
St. Louis baserunner Jeremy Hazelbaker safely steals second base, beating the tag by Atlanta shortstop Ozzie Albies during the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game in March. AP

Upon meeting Ozzie Albies for the first time, the most evident thing about him is his youth. This is his third season in the Atlanta Braves’ organization and he’s one step away from the big leagues at Triple-A Gwinnett.

So it’s easy to forget that Albies is still only 19 years old, easily the youngest player in the International League. Four others are 21 and several others 22. Some of the players are married with children. Albies would get carded buying smokeless tobacco. Especially given his youthful face and slight build at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds.

Yet there’s a maturity about his demeanor that belies his age. One sign of his maturity is when he described his daily routine.

“After the game, I go home, drink a lot of water, chill, play PlayStation, go to bed,” Albies said, laughing at how boring that might sound to some people. “I try to get my rest, at least eight hours, and be ready for the next day. Come in, hit in the cage, get my ground balls, come back in and cool off and go for the game. I don’t try to do anything extra and use my energy. My age right now, I can’t even go out. I cannot drink. I just need to go home.”

He laughed again.

“That’s the only thing I can do — go home.”

Maybe the precociousness is a Curaçao thing. Andrew Jones was 19 when he hit two home runs in the World Series. That was October 1996, by the way, about 10 weeks before Ozhaino Jurdy Jiandro Albies was born. Jurickson Profar was 19 when he made his major league debut with Texas in 2012.

Only 14 players born in Curaçao have made it to the majors, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Albies hopes to make it 15 — and the fifth with the Braves …

Only 14 players born in Curaçao have made it to the majors, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Albies hopes to make it 15 — and the fifth with the Braves, following Jones, Randall Simon, Jair Jurrjens and Andrelton Simmons. And he wants to do so before he turns 20. Albies knows his hitting is a work in progress. After all, he has played only 173 games above rookie ball, and 98 of those came at Class A Rome last season. But defensively, Albies believes he’s a big leaguer right now, whether at shortstop or at second base, where he has been playing lately, presumably to clear a path for fellow phenom Dansby Swanson to move up.

“Yeah, I feel ready to play,” Albies said. “My goal is to get the call this year, whenever it is —tomorrow, today, next month, whatever. My goal is to get there this year. I worked for this.”

His confidence was buoyed by spending a week in the major league spring training camp. He also got to know Swanson and could see why scouts are raving about him. Even before he was moved to second, Albies insisted that he didn’t care where he plays.

“If I need to play wherever to play in the big leagues, I’m going for it no matter where I’m playing,” he said. “The goal is to reach the big leagues.”

Spring training observers say it’s evident that Albies and Swanson bonded right away. They played shortstop and second base interchangeably, both appearing to be comfortable with each other and either position.

“He’s a good guy. He’s nice to me, and I’m nice to him,” Albies said. Then he grinned and added, “We just play baseball.”

There has been speculation that Swanson will soon join Albies in Gwinnett, forming a double-play combination for years to come. He knows the front office and many fans are tracking his progress. But he doesn’t feel any pressure.

“Nah,” he said, and there’s that grin again. “I know people are looking. But I’m still going to do my thing.”

Many baseball people will say the jump from A-ball to Double-A is the toughest to make. Albies would dispute that. He hit .310 at Rome last year, and was batting .369 at Double-A Mississippi through 22 games this season when he was promoted to Gwinnett.

The biggest difference has been the experience of the pitchers, many of whom have been in the big leagues. The average age of pitchers in the International League is nearly 27. So it’s neither surprising nor alarming that Albies has struggled at times with Gwinnett. He’s hitting .243 in 52 games at Triple-A.

“It’s an adjustment all the time,” he said. “First time up you might see fastball, fastball, slider. The next time up he might start you with a slider. They keep changing. Low-A – fastball. Get ready. Hit it. Here, you’re ready for a fastball and you see a changeup. Back door slider, down low. They throw a curve ball. You want to lay off, but they throw it for a strike. I feel like here is tougher. When I got here, balls I would hit hard, they would catch them. Defense is better.”

Even if the call doesn’t come this year, Albies should make it by some point next season. If the Braves happen to make the playoffs, he’ll still be too young to taste the victory champagne.

Guerry Clegg: sports@ledger-enquirer.com, @guerryclegg

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