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Rookies Pastornicky, Simmons battle for job with Braves

Atlanta Braves shortstop Tyler Pastornicky (1) slides into second as Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar waits during the sixth inning of their spring training baseball game in Dunedin, Fla., Saturday, March 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Atlanta Braves shortstop Tyler Pastornicky (1) slides into second as Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar waits during the sixth inning of their spring training baseball game in Dunedin, Fla., Saturday, March 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Atlanta Braves have their shortstop of the future. There is no doubt about that.

But do they have their shortstop of the present?

Andrelton Simmons has turned heads this spring with his almost limitless range, sure hands and canon arm. No one doubts that he is ready defensively for the major leagues.

But is he ready offensively? The 22-year-old from Curacao won the batting title in the Carolina League last year in his first full minor league season, but that was in Class A-Advanced ball.

Fellow rookie Tyler Pastornicky has played the equivalent of a full season in Class AA and most of the second half of last year with Class AAA Gwinnett. He has the edge in minor league experience.

With a little less than a week of spring training remaining, Pastornicky also seems to have regained the edge in the shortstop battle after a dismal start. But the Braves have jumped a player directly from Class A to the majors before and didn't suffer for it.

Rafael Furcal made the jump in 2000 and batted .295 with 40 stolen bases en route to winning National League rookie of the year.

The Braves know that Simmons isn't ready for that kind of offensive contribution yet. But defensively, the comparison is just as decisive the other way.

"He's got some range out there and he's got a great arm," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Simmons. "He's everything you want in a shortstop."

"This kid has got it all," chimed in future Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones. "When you haven't played a game about A ball and everybody who see you says you're major league-ready defensively, that saying something."

With Simmons on the horizon, the Braves elected not to re-sign incumbent shortstop Alex Gonzalez and try to get through this season with Pastornicky and veteran Jack Wilson filling the gap.

But Wilson is just coming back from a strained calf and Pastornicky got off to a dubious spring start. That helped Simmons enter the discussion for the job a year or so ahead of schedule.

"I know I still have some stuff to learn," Simmons said. "I'm trying to learn as quickly as I can."

Simmons followed up his .311 season for Lynchburg by getting off to a hot start at the plate during Grapefruit League games. But he has tailed off since and Pastornicky has heated up after a frigid start.

Hitting .125 threw 13 games, Pastornicky is 8-for-19 since and had a four-hit game against Florida last Thursday. The 22-year-old Florida native has also steadied in the field after three early errors.

"I was putting too much pressure on myself," said Pastornicky, obtained from Toronto in the Yunel Escobar deal midway through the 2010 season. "The situation I'm in, you don't want to put any more pressure than you already have."

Pastornicky's average is still just .220 in Grapefruit League play. But that is better than Simmons, who has slipped to .205.

Pastornicky hit .365 in 27 games with Gwinnett last season and had 27 stolen bases combined with the G-Braves and Class AA Mississippi. But he may not have the range and arm to be a full-time major league shortstop.

No one questions Simmons' range or his arm. In fact, he was as coveted as a pitching prospect as he was a shortstop thanks to a 98 mph fastball that he displayed at Western Oklahoma State junior college after coming to the United States.

"I told them to give me a chance to prove that I can play shortstop," said the 6-foot-2 Simmons, who was drafted in the second round by the Braves.

He showed he could.

After playing in the rookie Appalachian League in 2010, Simmons had a rough first week with Lynchburg last year. But it was all smooth sailing after that as he dazzled in the field and batted .311 with 35 doubles, six triples, a homer, 52 RBIs and 26 stolen bases.

Managers in the Carolina League rated Simmons the most exciting player in league as well as being the best defensive shortstop and having the best arm.

MLB.com has Simmons as the Braves' third best prospect pitchers Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado and as the No. 65 prospect in all of baseball. Baseball America has Simmons at No. 92 in its Top 100 list.

Pastornicky, the Braves' No. 7 prospect, isn't on either Top 100 list. That shows Simmons' greater perceived upside.

Simmons has also seemed the more confident player this spring despite his lack of experience.

Asked if he was continuously thinking about whether he would make the Braves, Simmons insisted that he was past that.

"I used to, but now I just go with the flow, take it one day at a time," he said. "Just try to do what I can and let them make whatever decision is best for the team and me."