LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Over the past month, Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies proved to be the best prospect duo the Braves have had in their Major League camp since Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward gained this valuable developmental experience together.At the same time, Mallex Smith enriched camp with
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Over the past month, Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies proved to be the best prospect duo the Braves have had in their Major League camp since Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward gained this valuable developmental experience together.
At the same time, Mallex Smith enriched camp with an enthusiastic approach that created reason to believe he too has the capability to make a strong impact once he is given his chance to become a part of the next wave of talent that will soon reach Atlanta.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez kept Swanson, Albies and Smith in big-league camp nearly a week longer than planned. But on Friday morning, he had to tell each of the prospects that he was being sent to Minor League camp to prepare for his respective season.
"The day is also coming when they will also be back to us," Gonzalez said. "It's a matter of time, and that is the message I sent to all three of them. … I feel comfortable that if we need somebody, any of those three guys can help us. It's just a matter of getting a little more seasoning."
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Since he was on the 40-man roster, Smith was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett. Swanson, Albies and right-handed pitchers Aaron Blair and Lucas Sims were reassigned to Minor League camp. They rank among the Braves' top 12 prospects, according to MLBPipeline.com, which also puts Swanson (8th), Albies (29th) and Blair (56th) among baseball's Top 100 Prospects.
"These guys, when they come up, they're going to be long-time Major League Baseball players," Gonzalez said. "They have the intangibles, the work ethic and great character. They all look you in the eye. I'm looking forward to the day when they come up and help us."
If the Braves were not in the midst of a rebuilding process and had a roster similar to the ones they possessed when the likes of Rafael Furcal and Heyward made big leaps to the big leagues, the Braves might have actually thought about carrying Smith, the 19-year-old Albies or Swanson, who has played just 22 regular-season professional games since the D-backs took him with the first pick in the 2015 Draft.
"Bobby Cox, a Hall of Fame manager, gets excited watching them," Gonzalez said. "He said, 'If you had a more veteran and more established team, I'm taking one of those guys with me."
The Braves have not revealed where Albies and Swanson will begin the upcoming season. There has been some thought that they will be separated to allow both to play shortstop on a daily basis. But as the two have developed a strong bond and friendship in camp, the club is now toying with the idea of placing them with the same affiliate and allowing them to alternate between the two middle-infield positions.
Over the course of the next year, the Braves will get a better sense of which of these middle infielders might move to second base. Both Swanson and Albies, who played for Class A Rome last year, could reach the Major League level by the start of the 2017 season.
"I think we're both in the same boat," Swanson said. "We just want to play well and learn from each other and just compete."
Swanson was acquired by the Braves via the blockbuster offseason trade that sent Shelby Miller to the D-backs. As he experienced his first Spring Training, the mature and composed 22-year-old shortstop seemed undaunted by the high expectations that surround him. He batted .300 (9-for-30) and recorded four extra-base hits -- three doubles and a triple -- over 16 Grapefruit League games.
"I didn't really have any expectations coming in," Swanson said. "I was just going to soak it all up. It's been fun just learning different things. That's always good."
Like Swanson, Albies was undaunted by the surroundings he inhabited during his first big-league camp. In fact, the 5-foot-9 shortstop was undoubtedly the most impressive prospect that the Braves brought this spring. The Curacao native batted .371 (13-for-35) with a double and a homer over 16 games.
"I want to be [in the Majors], and I'm going to continue working hard to be here," Albies said.
Smith might have been the most-improved prospect to return to Braves camp this year. The fleet-footed center fielder has made great strides defensively, and he showed his potential at the plate as he batted .346 (9-for-26) with three doubles, three triples and a home run. He recorded two of those triples during the first inning on March 2 against the Orioles.
"These are special kids," Gonzalez said. "Usually you get one of the veteran guys get upset because one of the young kids are not behaving the way they should behave. I never got one complaint from any of our veteran guys. As a matter of fact, I got guys telling us that these guys behave like you want."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.