Braves Stock Rome With Bushelful Of Top Prospects

The Braves were introducing their latest prospect, shortstop Edward Salcedo, during a press conference in mid-March when farm director Kurt Kemp leaned over to president John Schuerholz and said, "He's got a good face."

In scouting parlance, a "good face" is an old-school intangible that refers to the athleticism and confidence a player's facial expressions exude. Salcedo, the 18-year-old from the Dominican Republic whom Atlanta signed for $1.6 million in February, oozes those traits. They help him fit right in with a group of good-faced babes expected to make low Class A Rome one of the most talented and youngest teams in the minors this season.

"We have a very talented group of young players who are in that 18- to 20-year-old range, and Rome is going to be the most appropriate place to put many of them," Kemp said. "You couple that with some of the new talent we have in the organization and the players who won a championship at (Rookie-level) Danville last year and you have a situation that creates a lot of excitement."

The R-Braves' everyday lineup looks to be loaded, led by first baseman Riaan Spanjer-Furstenburg, the 2009 Appalachian League MVP who paced the circuit with a .359 average, 84 hits and 127 total bases. Outfielder Cory Harrilchak earned all-star honors and ranked second at Danville with 41 RBIs, and fellow flycatcher Robby Hefflinger had seven home runs and 37 RBIs. Both arrived in spring training having made significant improvements by adding strength and size since instructional league.

Sorting It Out At Short

A year ago, shortstop was considered the weak link on Atlanta's organizational chart, but the Braves have made a concentrated effort to improve the position. The Braves consider the recent signing of Salcedo the equivalent of a high first-round draft choice with his glovework, arm strength and offensive potential. Nothing has tempered the team's enthusiasm about Salcedo since his arrival in Orlando.

"We're taking it a day at a time and letting Edward show us where he needs to be," Kemp said. "He arrived in great shape and from day one has done everything in the workouts that all of our other players have. He's made a very good impression on all of us. He's a very bright and intelligent young man who has fit right in."

Salcedo's arrival has created a logjam in the organization's lower reaches. Mycal Jones, a fourth-round pick last June, has plus-plus speed and quick-twitch athleticism that helped him lead the Appy League in runs and triples last year. With both players considered solid prospects, the Braves created a change of scenery for Matt Weaver, a smooth shortstop who hit .291 at Danville but has moved, at least temporarily, to second base.

Another top-tier talent garnered from the efforts of international scouting director Johnny Almaraz is catcher Christian Bethancourt. Rated the top prospect in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last year, Bethancourt spent the last few weeks of the 2009 campaign at Danville and is ready for a full-season circuit.

"Christian improves every time he steps on the field," Kemp said. "He's very aggressive with his outstanding arm strength, and he's continuing to get stronger and grow into his body."

Mound Overload

As promising as the position players may be, the most intriguing area at Rome is the starting pitching. With less than three weeks remaining in spring training, no fewer than seven hurlers were competing for spots in the R-Braves' rotation. The lone familiar face at State Mutual Stadium will be Julio Teheran. The 19-year-old righthander from Colombia made seven starts for Rome last season after being ranked as the top prospect in the Appy League. Teheran mixes a plus 92-96 mph fastball and a promising curveball and changeup.

"We saw last year a very mature young man who is just a pup but has everything you want to see from a pitcher," Rome manager Randy Ingle said. "He has three plus pitches with good command. He's very aggressive on the mound and he pitches much older than his age. The ball comes out of his hand easy and then explodes on the hitter."

The same things can be said about Arodys Vizcaino, a 19-year-old righthander who may prove to be the key acquisition from the off-season trade that sent Javier Vazquez to the Yankees. Vizcaino received $800,000 from New York to sign out of the Dominican Republic in 2007 and has demonstrated during the early portion of spring training many of the same qualities that Teheran possesses.

"The ease with which he does things and the ease with which the ball comes out of his hand is very impressive," Kemp said. "His delivery is under control, his arm is in the right spot to throw the ball up and down, and the ball really jumps out of his hand. He also has a good feel for his curveball and changeup."

The R-Braves also have three southpaws competing for starting spots. Matt Crim is the reigning Appy League pitcher of the year after pacing the circuit with 10 wins and ranking eighth with a 3.18 ERA. Chris Masters led the Rookie-level loop with 85 strikeouts and ranked second with a 1.42 ERA. Crim and Brett Oberholtzer, who was fourth in the league with a 2.01 ERA, threw complete games in the Appy League playoffs last summer.

Also in the mix are former Princeton righthander David Hale, Atlanta's third-round pick last June, and 19-year-old righthander Robinson Lopez, who was the Braves' top performer in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League by going 3-1, 1.29. As a result, Kemp, minor league pitching coordinator Dave Wallace and the Braves' minor league pitching coaches have been busy evaluating the young hurlers on a daily basis in order to determine how to get everyone enough innings.

"You can bet we're going to have a lot of interesting meetings in terms of putting the right people at the right places as we finalize our rosters," Kemp said.