When the Braves dealt shortstop Yunel Escobar to Toronto last year, they received two shortstops in return: Alex Gonzalez and Tyler Pastornicky. The hope in Atlanta was that Gonzalez would be the starter for the team through 2011 and that Pastornicky would take over in 2012. That timetable seemed ambitious at the time, but Gonzalez and Pastornicky may be forcing a change even sooner than expected.
While Escobar has gotten his career back on track in Toronto, hitting .310/.389/.447 this season, Gonzalez has scuffled to a .228/.260/.338 line in Atlanta, hitting for little of his trademark power. While he remains a solid defensive player, Gonzalez has no business starting against right-handed pitchers, against whom he possesses a whopping .552 OPS (His .733 mark against lefties is more palatable).
That sure makes the Braves look bad for the shortstop swap, and none of the replacements they’ve tried–Diory Hernandez, Brandon Hicks, and, of all people, Julio Lugo–have even hit at Gonzalez’s level.
And that, obviously, puts a lot of pressure on Pastornicky to perform down the line. Luckily for Braves fans, he’s really come through.
Pastornicky was just 20 when the Braves acquired him last year, but they immediately pushed him to Double-A following the trade, and he held his own there. Returning to the level to open 2011, he hit .299/.345/.414 with a 34/24 K/BB in 90 games, also stealing 20 bases.
Since that’s pretty good for a defense-oriented shortstop, the Braves promoted Pastornicky to Triple-A Gwinnett last week, and he’s gone a cool 15-for-34 in his first eight games, also stealing four bases in as many attempts.
Given that he’s an impressive defender at shortstop as well, it’s quite possibly that Pastornicky could already be the best shortstop in the organization despite being just 21 years and seven months old. That’s not to overreact to eight games, of course, but he’s now hit .311/.357/.416 across two levels while going 24-for-32 on the bases and playing good defense at shortstop–one could easily imagine that translating into better production than the .211/.247/.312 line put up by Braves shortstops this year. That line is good for a mere .249 wOBA, worst in the majors.
Whether Pastornicky gets the call or not in the next two months, his overall solid performance in the upper minors at a young age definitely cements his status as a probable future steady performer at shortstop. After all, he puts the ball in play–just 36 strikeouts in 98 games–and with his solid speed and moderate pop, that should allow him to hit at least .265-.270, if not higher, in his prime. And if he becomes a .270/.330/.380 hitter with solid speed and defense, that’s a 3-4 win player and very valuable commodity. And, given his youth, Pastornicky may have time to develop into even more than that.
So, be on the lookout for this interesting prospect. He could be making an impact sooner rather than later, and while Pastornicky likely won’t win any MVP awards, he could become a very dependable MLB player.