JUPITER, Fla. - Bright, but uncertain.
This is the best way to describe the future of 21-year-old Andy Marte, the top-rated prospect in the Braves' system.
Bright is an accurate descriptor because of his smooth, yet powerful swing. One that reminds manager Bobby Cox of Red Sox All-Star Manny Ramirez. One that's produced 60 home runs in his past three seasons at the Class A and AA levels.
"He's got a beautiful swing," Cox said. "There's no violence in his swing. It's smooth."
The uncertainty comes clouding in, however, when you consider his position: third base.
"We're going to have to figure something out," said Chipper Jones, who is firmly entrenched at third base after playing 96 games there last season. "For both of us to play in this uniform, one of us has got to be able to do something else."
Marte still might be a year away from cracking the big club. He'll most likely begin the year with Class AAA Richmond. But the seeming logjam on the horizon is already a thought that's creeping in more and more.
"It enters my mind, but it's not prevalent," Jones said. "All I can worry about is what's going to happen this year. I know I'll be playing third base this year."
Marte said he's just trying to play loose this spring. He'll worry about the next step in his career, he says, at a later date.
"I'm working hard, doing my thing. I'm not too worried," Marte said. "I'm just taking it slow, day by day, and seeing what happens."
Going into today's spring game at Disney against the Dodgers, Marte has been doing his thing at the plate more than any other Brave. He has a team-high 23 at-bats.
And he's taken advantage of those plate appearances, with eight hits and five runs scored - and only one strikeout.
He broke through Saturday in a split-squad start against the Phillies in Clearwater, knocking two homers - "bombs against a stiff wind," Cox called them.
Those shots were echoes of his past success on the farm.
At Class AA Greenville last season, he smacked 23 home runs - second among those in the team's system. He hit 16 homers the season before in Myrtle Beach. In his first full season, 2002, he had 21 homers with 105 RBI in Macon.
"He's outstanding, one of the top run-producers in the game," Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz said. "I think some surveys say he is the top."
Schuerholz said roster spots - and holes in the batting order - tend to be freed for a player with that sort of pedigree and ability.
To help pave the way, the Braves haven't given up on the idea of teaching Marte the outfield. He's worked out there a few times this spring, but he says that transition would be a difficult one.
Jones, who had played either shortstop or third his entire career, made the move to left in 2002 to fill a void and provide a spot in the lineup and at third for Vinny Castilla.
Jones said seamless success in that sort of position swap is extremely hard to come by - much more than most assume.
"It wasn't easy going out to the outfield, and I'm sure for him it's the same way," he said.
Reach Travis Haney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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