Andrus on track to meet goals
Shortstop looking to be in big leagues before he turns 20
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When told last week about the 18-year-old phenom Elvis Andrus, Braves shortstop Edgar Renteria joked that it was time for him to prepare for his planned retirement role as a first-base coach.
Then, after getting a chance to see Andrus play with Atlanta's Major League club in Sunday's game against the Cardinals, Renteria gained a better understanding of why he could be looking for a new employer next year.
"He reminds me a lot of myself when I came up," Renteria said. "Just from watching him take ground balls, he looks like he has a lot of experience already."
When Renteria made his Major League debut for the Marlins in 1996, he was just 19 years-old -- the same age that Andrus will reach on Aug. 26. And if the young shortstop's goals become a reality, Andrus will make his Atlanta debut midway through the 2008 season, before he's celebrated his 20th birthday.
"That's my goal, and that's what I want," Andrus said. "If you want something, you go get it."
With this statement, which displays both his confidence and determination, Andrus showed no signs of possessing the cockiness of many other 18-year-old superstars. This doesn't come as a surprise to the Braves, who have quickly seen him mature into both a man and one of the game's top prospects.
"If you watch him play, somewhere in the course of a nine-inning game you're going to see him do something that makes you realize that he's something special," said longtime Braves coach Bobby Dews, who will serve in a top advisory role for player development this year.
Last year, while completing his first full professional season with Class A Rome, Andrus found himself as one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League. He made the All-Star team and at the end of the season Baseball America tabbed him the league's fourth-best prospect. The publication also named him the club's second-best prospect, behind catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
"[Andrus] gives you the sense that he's comfortable in his shoes," Braves director of player development Kurt Kemp said. "Wherever we put him, he's adapted, grown and learned. I feel that he's going to continue to do that as he continues to move up the system."
Andrus, who hit .265 and registered 23 stolen bases at Rome, will likely begin this season at Class A Myrtle Beach. With the organization flooded with top-caliber middle-infield talent, the Braves won't feel the need to rush the young Venezuelan.
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But as soon as he begins to show signs that he's ready, they'll advance him with the confidence that they did Andruw Jones, who began his tenure in the Carolina League at age 19 in 1996 and ended up making his Major League debut that same season.
When told that Andrus had set a goal of reaching the Majors midway through the 2008 season, Kemp smiled and was reminded again that it's not just the glove, arm and bat that make this young shortstop special.
"He understands the process, but he also aspires to reach those heights," Kemp said. "Who are we to tell him that he can or can't. He's going to tell us how ready he is at every step along the way."
When Andrus arrived to play in Sunday's Major League game, it was apparent that he's quickly growing both mentally and physically. Since signing with the Braves in 2005, he's gained an ability to utilize the English language better than many other Latin American players who have been around for a much longer period of time.
These improved communications skills combined with his 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame will allow him to continue his fast ascent toward Atlanta.
"He's a super kid," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He's got a great future."
Andrus' maturity may be a product of his strong family upbringing. Like any other young Venezuelan shortstop, he has great admiration for Omar Vizquel. But when asked who he would consider to be his idol, Andrus indicated that it would be his father and brothers.
"They are my idols, because they're the ones that taught me since I was young," Andrus said.
Because Andrus is still younger than many of the players, the Braves will select in this year's First-Year Player Draft, it wouldn't be wise to look to project his future based simply on statistics. He's hit just six homers in his first 621 professional at-bats, and he committed 32 errors last year.
These numbers become much less worrisome when you consider that Jones hit just three homers in the 238 at-bats he registered before his 18th birthday. Also, some young shortstop named Rafael Furcal committed 30 errors when he played in the South Atlantic League at the age of 22.
"I'm young," Andrus said. "I just have to play games and wait for the time."
Renteria is under contract through the end of the 2008 season, and he has an option for the 2009 season. By that time, Andrus will likely have gained the development necessary to earn his shot to prove himself as Atlanta's starting shortstop.
Andrus may not have the bullet arm or blazing speed possessed by Furcal, but he does appear to be a five-tool prospect whose greatest asset may be his head.
"He's a great kid," Kemp said. "He comes to the park ready to play every day. He has a maturity about him and has a comfort around people who are a few years older than him. All those things, as well as his natural given ability, make it a joy to have him as part of the organization."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.