Originally created 03/10/02

It's just a matter of time



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - He knows his career is about to take off, like the rocket his friend and fellow Dominican, Rafael Furcal, rode to stardom two years ago.

It doesn't get much better than being 21 years old and perhaps the best shortstop prospect in all of baseball, even if that means another humbling season in the minor leagues before you receive a shot at the bright lights.

There are days, certainly, when Wilson Betemit looks ready to play for the Atlanta Braves. Like when he glided into the hole against the Devil Rays last week, backhanded a hard grounder, then straightened and easily threw out the runner.

"He made it look easy," manager Bobby Cox gushed. "He can play there."

The question is, can he play here?

Not so fast, the Braves say. While they are eager for the switch-hitting Betemit, who is batting .100 this spring, to force his way into the lineup, their timetable is flexible. Insiders say he will have to dazzle the team this spring to make the opening day roster, and while players and coaches have all put their seal of approval on the kid, no one wants to rush a special talent.

"He's very close," general manager John Schuerholz said. "He's a major league infielder just waiting to happen, whether at the end of this spring or shortly thereafter. If he's good enough, like Furcal was, it won't be a problem at all, and if he needs a little more time, that's not a problem either."

Betemit, the center of controversy two years ago when he left camp and missed half the season in a bonus dispute initiated by his agent, probably will open the season at Class AAA Richmond. He started at Class A Myrtle Beach last year, played 47 games at Class AA Greenville, where he batted a eye-popping .355, then received a September summons from the Braves. He was not an overnight success - striking out in all three at-bats - but he also walked twice and stole a base. More important, he said, he developed the confidence that he could play in the big leagues.

"I don't want to say I'm ready for sure," he said. "Those guys will make a decision."

It doesn't hurt for Betemit to be around a pair of veteran Latin infielders like Julio Franco and Vinny Castilla, who have a combined 23 years in the big leagues, not to mention a shortstop, Furcal, who diagrammed a meteoric rise to the majors by skipping two minor league levels two years ago.

That's about the equivalent of a high school tuba whiz joining the New York Philharmonic.

"I think Betemit is going to be something special," said minor league coach Rafael Belliard, who knows a thing or two about playing shortstop. "All that talent he shows you, plus bat speed and power. He just needs to get more consistent on defense."

Which brings us to his glove, which can both distress and dazzle onlookers. He has a tendency to hang back on grounders that coaches would like to see him charge, and he often flips the ball to first base on the run instead of setting himself and making a strong throw. But those are hardly insurmountable faults. Furcal was just the opposite. He tended to be overaggressive and charge every ball hit in his direction, but smoothed out his defense with extra work, just as Betemit is doing on a back diamond every morning with Belliard.

"I'm working on my defense," Betemit said. "It's getting better."

What's harder to gauge is Betemit's desire. He doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve like second baseman Marcus Giles; he has been likened to center fielder Andruw Jones in his laid-back approach to the game.

The team wanted Betemit to take charge this spring and assert himself as a big league shortstop. Instead, he has been flying under the camp radar, content to move anonymously through morning drills and afternoon games.

Asked to assess Betemit's progress, left fielder Chipper Jones shrugged and said, "I can't. I haven't seen him this spring."

Soon enough, Betemit will be in the big leagues. The question is, where does he fit? Bullpen coach Bobby Dews looked at Betemit's 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame and described him as a "prototypical shortstop." The team, which has had just one shortstop (Jeff Blauser) hit more than 15 home runs and knock in more than 70 runs in almost 50 years, sees him as a Cal Ripken-type hitter, driving the ball into gaps and hitting home runs.

If Betemit stays at shortstop, and there are some baseball people who think he may wind up at third, then Furcal would shift to second.

"You don't (often) see that size and a switch-hitter with his power," Belliard said. "He's going to get better and better."

That's what the Braves are counting on.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.