Thursday, January 18, 2007

Adam LaRoche Trade Sets Stage for Braves Faceoff

Atlanta Braves GM John Schuerholz waited patiently for two months while the Pirates tied up closer Mike Gonzalez with a one-year, $2.35 million contract, then pulled the trigger to trade first baseman Adam LaRoche for him and set the stage for a potential battle between two of Atlanta's top prospects.

Scott Thorman, 24, a surprisingly agile, 6-foot-3, 235-pound rookie, will be given the first shot to replace LaRoche this spring after impressing the front office with a .298 batting average and 15 homers in limited time with AAA Richmond. But Thorman took a step back in 128 atbats with the Braves, hitting a tepid .234 with five homers, and is hardly a sure thing.

In consideration of a Thorman shortcoming, look for Schuerholz to pick up a backup veteran corner infielder in the mold of former Brave Robert Fick, contemplate moving third baseman Chipper Jones to first base to be replaced by Willy Aybar at third, and all the while keep an eye on 21-year-old prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia over the long term.

Saltalamacchia, a switchhitting former No. 1 pick, has come up as a catcher, but with budding star Brian McCann solidified behind the plate with the parent club, Saltalamacchia stands to be converted to first or third base and be given a shot to compete at the major league level perhaps by 2008, maybe even when rosters are expanded in September of 2007.

With his backstop skills still not ready for prime time, a corner infield spot likely is a better fit for Saltalamacchia, who brings good footwork, decent leather and a unique, Sicilian-style tenacity to the game.