NYT: “Braves again look to Curaçao and find another top prospect”
JUPITER, WILLEMSTAD — Ozhaino Albies can mark his birth in relation to the most famous baseball player his country ever produced, a man who inextricably linked their small island nation, Curaçao, to the Atlanta Braves.
“I was born four and a half months after Andruw Jones made his debut,” Albies, a top prospect for the Braves, said before a recent spring training game.
It seems fitting that Albies entered the world — or Willemstad, to be precise — so shortly after the inception of Jones’s major league career in Atlanta.
Few teams can match the success that the Braves have had in Curaçao. It began in 1996 with Jones, who went on to play 12 years in Atlanta. The Braves subsequently added Randall Simon, Jair Jurrjens and the gifted shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
Albies, who turned 19 on Jan. 7, could become the next in that chain. Compact, athletic and as smooth as any of the other terrific shortstops who learned to play on Curaçao’s gravelly youth fields, Albies, who goes by Ozzie, has impressed in his first major league training camp.
“He’s really, really good,” said Jeff Francoeur, the veteran Braves outfielder. “He could play in the big leagues right now. I’m not saying he would be a star, but he would hold his own. He is fun to watch, and it seems like he gets it. I think he can be really special.”
Albies is listed at 5 feet 9 inches, but to some scouts he looks closer to the height of Jose Altuve, the Houston Astros’ 5-6 second baseman, whose 425 hits the last two years have demonstrated that height is not a prerequisite for baseball success.
Albies can field his position well, and with eight hits in his first 24 at-bats in spring training, he has shown proficiency against some major league pitching, and gained confidence.
“I feel I am ready for this,” he said. “I know I have a lot to work on and a lot to learn. But I feel I am ready to do whatever is necessary to get there.”
Albies batted .328 with an .812 on-base plus slugging percentage in 155 minor league games over two seasons, mostly in Class A. He hit only one home run but had 28 doubles and 11 triples and has landed on many top-prospect lists.
“He’s faced every challenge we’ve given him, and we’re very excited to have him,” Braves General Manager John Coppolella said. “He’s a winning player and an exciting player.”
Coppolella credited the Curaçaoan scout Dargello Lodowica for signing Albies, who learned to play baseball on the same field as Simmons (now with the Los Angeles Angels), Jurickson Profar of the Texas Rangers and the Yankees’ Didi Gregorius.
Philip Elhage, a longtime scout and one of the deans of Curaçao baseball, has been watching Albies since he was a boy.
“He was kind of overlooked because of his size, but he has a big heart,” Elhage said. “He’s a very polite kid, but he is a fighter. I think he can be the next guy.”
Players from Curaçao often intrigue major league teams. They come from a tradition of good coaching and are usually well educated in the Dutch system. Many people from Curaçao are fluent in Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamento.
“Players from Curaçao speak four different languages and grow up playing baseball,” Coppolella said. “They have the intellect as well as the instincts. Not to say the guys from other countries don’t have that. But just speaking about Curaçao, we have been very happy with the players we have brought to the Braves.”
Albies is not only a good baseball player; he says he plays a good deal of tennis, too. His girlfriend, Janet Evans, is a high-level tennis player from Curaçao, and they often play together. (Albies says he uses a one-handed backhand; otherwise he would swing his racket like a bat and send the ball into the Caribbean.)
The couple envision a day when Evans can come to the United States to train near Albies. The hope is for that to be in Atlanta in the not-too-distant future.
For now, the Braves have Erick Aybar, whom they acquired from the Angels in the deal that included Simmons. He is expected to be the regular shortstop for the next year or two.
But the future is quite intriguing, beyond Albies. In December, the Braves acquired Dansby Swanson from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who had picked him with the first overall pick in the 2015 amateur draft. Swanson is an exceptional shortstop, too.
Perhaps one of them will eventually move to second base, and the Braves can envision a foundational double-play combo of Albies and Swanson for years to come.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Coppolella said. “We are excited about the options we have in the future, and excited about the options we have right now.”
Before their recent spring game against the Miami Marlins, Albies and Swanson worked out together at shortstop, and when Aybar went onto the field, they moved in tandem to second base to gather more ground balls.
“I just want to help the Braves any way I can,” Albies said. “I know about the history with the Braves in Curaçao going back to Andruw Jones, of course. I was a big fan, and then I was a fan of Andrelton, too. It would be great to follow their footsteps.”
By David Waldstein
New York Times