ATLANTA -- Just two weeks removed from a painful and abrupt end to the 2012 season, the Braves are already preparing for the 2013 season. Along with planning for the annual reconstruction process, the team's front office is keeping tabs on how some of its top prospects are faring in the Arizona Fall League and a few other winter leagues.
As Edward Salcedo and Zeke Spruill spend the next couple of weeks testing themselves against other highly-regarded prospects in the Arizona Fall League, catcher Christian Bethancourt will join top pitching prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado in the Dominican Republic with the hope of improving his odds of making the jump to the Major League level next year.
"It's very important from a progress standpoint," Braves vice president and assistant general manager Bruce Manno said. "Any time you can put the players in a competitive environment where they are playing against players as good or better than them, they often take their game to the next level and it's fun to see how they compete in that environment."
Bethancourt solidified his status as one of the game's top catching prospects while competing with the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in last year's AFL. This year, the strong-armed catcher will be displaying his talents in the Dominican Winter League with Teheran and Delgado, a pair of talented pitchers who are once again targeted to come to Spring Training to compete for the fifth spot in Atlanta's starting rotation.
While there are some questions about when veteran catcher Brian McCann's tenure in Atlanta will end, there is no doubt that Bethancourt stands as his heir apparent. The 21-year-old catcher struggled at the plate during the first half of this past season with Double-A Mississippi and then started to show some encouraging signs just before breaking his left hand on Aug. 8.
Bethancourt appeared to be healthy as he began playing again in Instructional League games this past week. Via Twitter, he has said he is looking forward to getting to the Dominican Republic next week to begin playing with the Tigres del Licey.
Teheran and Delgado are expected to join the Licey club next week. Both are expected to make approximately seven starts. This would put them on target to complete 30-40 innings.
While Salcedo will not come to Spring Training next year with a chance to win a spot on the big league roster, the Braves are certainly still high on the potential of this 21-year-old third baseman, who received a $1.6 million signing bonus in February 2010.
Salcedo hit .240 with 17 home runs and a .707 OPS in 130 games with Class A-Advanced Lynchburg this past summer. Along with showing some power, he struck out 130 times in 471 at-bats and proved inconsistent with his glove at third base.
The Braves are hoping Salcedo will benefit from the chance to spend the next couple of weeks playing for the Phoenix Desert Dogs. The Desert Dogs are being managed by Aaron Holbert, who joined the Braves' organization as Double-A Mississippi's manager this past year.
"I think what we're looking for from [Salcedo] now is consistency," Manno said. "That is both ways in his game. He made some great and he made the poor plays. You see the ability and skill level. He's a young player who needs to be more consistent and that comes with just playing games."
A couple of other Braves prospects to watch in the AFL this year are shortstop Nick Ahmed and right-handed pitcher Spruill. Ahmed recorded six hits, including a double and a triple, in his first 13 at-bats for the Desert Dogs. Meanwhile Spruill has allowed one earned run and recorded five strikeouts in his first 5 1/3 innings.
As things currently stand, Spruill, outfielder Todd Cunningham and intriguing slugger Evan Gattis are all targeted to begin the 2013 season with Triple-A Gwinnett.
Cunningham improved his stock while hitting .309 with 24 stolen bases and a .767 OPS with Double-A Mississippi this year. The dependable 23-year-old center fielder has recorded five hits, including a double and a homer, in his first 17 at-bats with Hermosillo in the Mexican Winter League.
Gattis gained attention in Spring Training and was terrorizing Southern League pitching before sustaining a wrist injury that sidelined him for six weeks. He started to prove he was healthy down the stretch with Double-A Mississippi and now has recorded nine hits, including four doubles and a home run, in his first 27 at-bats for Zulia of the Venezuelan Winter League.
The plan is for Gattis to serve as both an outfielder and catcher for Zulia. While it is unclear what position this 26-year-old prospect might play in the future, there is certainly some excitement about his offensive potential. He combined to hit .305 with 18 home runs and a .607 slugging percentage in 272 Minor League at-bats this year.