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Salty making solid first impression03/16/2006 5:34 PM ET
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- While the specifics concerning Jarrod Saltalamacchia's future might be unclear, there's no doubt it's one that appears very bright.
Just three years after being the Braves' first selection in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, Saltalamacchia has been given a chance to prove himself in his first big-league camp. With a couple of three-run homers, including one of the walk-off variety, it's safe to say the top catching prospect has made a good first impression.
"He's been doing well," said Braves veteran backup catcher Todd Pratt, who has served as Saltalamacchia's mentor. "He doesn't look out of place, and that's a positive."
Entering Thursday, Saltalamacchia has just five hits in 26 Grapefruit League at-bats. But included was a walk-off homer that gave the Braves a 9-8 win over the Dodgers on March 3, and provided him a memory from his first Major League camp that he'll never forget.
"He's looking good," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "For a 20-year-old, [gosh] ..."
Even before seeing his impressive arm or bat, one might have a hard time believing Saltalamacchia is just 20 years old. Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing close to 220 pounds, he has a physical maturity that further provides hope for a very bright future at the Major League level.
"He has to be big so that he can fit his name on the back of his uniform," Braves general manager John Schuerholz quipped. "He's got more letters than I have."
Saltalamacchia, who will celebrate his 21st birthday on May 2, has established himself as one of the best catchers in the Minor Leagues. When Atlanta traded Andy Marte in December, Saltalamacchia arguably became the best prospect in the Braves' fruitful Minor League system.
While playing at Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach last year, Saltalamacchia hit .314 with 19 homers and 81 RBIs. He also produced an impressive .519 slugging percentage. Given a chance to further prove himself in the Arizona Fall League, he hit .288 (21-for-73) with a homer and six doubles.
"I feel confident," Saltalamacchia said. "I feel good. I think I've been playing decent. Catching-wise, I think I'm ready [for the Majors]. Hitting-wise, I've felt great at the plate, so I think I'm ready."
If he were with another organization, there may be a chance he'd currently be competing for a spot on a Major League roster. But with 22-year-old Brian McCann already in place as Atlanta's starting catcher, there's no reason for the Braves to rush Saltalamacchia, who has compiled less than 800 career at-bats above the rookie level.
"He's a good young player and he's going to have a fine career," Schuerholz said. "He'll develop like all of our young guys have developed -- at his natural pace. It will happen when it happens."
With McCann already in place and the strong possibility that Saltalamacchia will be ready for the Majors by the start of next season, the Braves know there may be a need to move Saltalamacchia to a corner infield spot. But for now, they want him to simply focus on his catching skills while playing at Double-A Mississippi.
"Anything can happen," Saltalamacchia said. "I'm just going to play my game and let [management] take care of that."
Saltalamacchia became a switch-hitter during his sophomore year at Royal Palm Beach High School in West Palm Beach, Fla. Last year, while hitting .319 from the left side and .305 from the right side, he began to become comfortable with the difficult art.
During the upcoming season, Saltalamacchia will need to focus trying to hit the ball to all fields from the right side of the plate. Defensively, he'll have an opportunity to improve his game-calling skills with Mississippi's pitching staff.
Pratt, who also resides in the West Palm Beach area, has spent the past three offseasons working with Saltalamacchia. During the process, he's come to learn it's not just the physical skills that make the young catching prospect's future bright.
"He's a very coachable player, which is great," Pratt said. "Some guys will have talent, but aren't very coachable, and it doesn't pan out for them."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.