Braves' Prado has become ultimate utility player

You know Martin Prado now, don't you?

Lately, how could you miss him?

At the plate, he's spraying the ball every which way. And he is popping up all over the infield, a Whac-A-Mole in spikes who has played three positions in the past 10 days. Counting some emergency duty in the outfield, he has played six positions for the Braves in less than two full seasons. And he's batted everywhere in the lineup except the 4 and 9 spots.

Yeah, but could he catch? "If they want me to, I will," he said, ever eager to please.

As it does with substitute teachers, interim coaches and imitation crab, the world pays but passing notice to the utility player. With the Braves sweep of the Phillies last week, the 25-year-old Prado put in his claim for full-time starter status. No longer can the Braves keep him in shadowy reserve. He has to be on the field somewhere, whether at second in lieu of the slumping Kelly Johnson or, like this week, at third while Chipper Jones nursed his latest ache.

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The three-game Phillies series was bookended by Prado's versatility. It began with a four-hit performance — including the game-winner in the 10th inning — that earned him a battlefield promotion to "everyday second baseman." Then it ended two days later when, after being uprooted and shifted to first base, he did a full gainer into a rolled tarp to capture the game's last out.

Prado is the reigning player of the week in the National League — "the wildest week I've ever had in my career" — after hitting .577 with a 1.000 slugging percentage.

This is where we could really use the late Billy Mays, to shout out the virtues of a player with 101 uses. And for no extra charge, we'll throw in a good guy to have in the clubhouse. And what a bargain: Prado makes "just" $415,000 — $15,000 above the major league minimum.

But yeah, even without a pitchman's help, you must have taken note. You catch a whiff of consistency from this erratic Braves bunch and it smells like honeysuckle.

But there is so much more to know.

We weren't there when Prado first got caught up in Venezuela's passion for the American pastime. He was only 4.

Growing up in the big city of Maracay, population 1.7 million, one of four children, Prado did not come from privation. But that's not saying anything was easy. "I would not say we were really poor," he said. "I grew up in a neighborhood where the people had two jobs. They had to work hard to support themselves.

"After my dad left the house, it was a struggle. But I kept playing ball and my older brother got a job that kept some balance in the family."

We don't know all the influences acting upon the boy Prado to make him the type of all-purpose player he is now. But the other Venezuelan players in Atlanta, or those who have passed through – Andres Galarraga, Ozzie Guillen, Eddie Perez, Omar Infante, Gregor Blanco – established the model of a heady player and a solid teammate.

Perez, the former catcher now a bullpen coach for the Braves, proudly lays down the team-first theme.

"In Venezuela, we don't play games to make players. We play to win games."

Prado chose his Venezuelan role model well enough, zeroing in on future Hall of Fame shortstop Omar Vizquel, the personification of smooth. "He's not just a baseball player, he's a human being. He really knows how to handle people and for me that's more important," Prado said.

Closer to home, his motivation has been identical to the one that has driven so many athletes in so many countries: "I always told my mother [Irma, who, along with a brother, joined Prado in the States] that I had to keep moving forward to do something for my family and something for her."

Movement was slow for a player who came with questions about his athleticism and his power – he has yet to hit double-figure home runs in any season at any level.

The Braves signed Prado in 2001 at 17, and banished him to three years of rookie ball in the Dominican Republic and the United States.

Once over here, Prado was faced with the double challenge of lifting his game and functioning in a foreign environment. He went about teaching himself English, his tutor any subtitled movie he could get his hands on. He knew he didn't want to be one of those players confined to a Spanish-speaking clubhouse clique.

A few years ago, Perez said, he couldn't have guessed that Prado would be as nimble with English as he is. But Prado seized on learning the language as being almost as important as building upon his resume as a player. "Communicating with the team and the people you work with is so important," he said.

If few on the outside were getting to know Prado at the minor league level, those in the system always seemed to find something to like.

Braves third-base coach Brian Snitker managed Prado at both Class AA Mississippi and Class AAA Richmond. "He was one of those guys the other managers always talked about," he said, "because of his baseball abilities and the way he played the game."

Then Snitker offered the ultimate compliment in his world: "He's a baseball player."

Dave Brundage, now the Gwinnett Braves manager, had Prado in Richmond in 2007 when he hit .316 and finished second for the International League batting title. The way Prado prepared stays with Brundage today.

"You'll see guys in batting practice hitting home runs, just pounding the ball all over," Brundage said. "And there's Martin Prado, staying inside the ball, hitting balls into the net on the right side [in front of first base]. You see that and say, 'You know what, this kid has an idea what he's doing.' You don't see that kind of thing a lot of times."

Even when Prado was called up to Atlanta that season, he continued to make an impression on Brundage. As the Richmond Braves went on to the postseason, eventually winning an International League title, Prado had his former manager on speed dial, constantly checking on the team's progress. "Nobody called me more than Martin Prado," Brundage said. "That says a lot about the young man. He got into the big leagues and still remembered where he came from."

"That was a good group of guys," Prado remembered. "Like my brothers."

To date, this getting to know Prado has been a happy chore. Teammates seem to recognize a guy who can play anywhere and play hurt [he has been nagged by a groin injury this season]. Braves TV analyst Joe Simpson, on occasion, has been known to speak in virtual sonnets about Prado, so taken is he with his style.

"He's my kind of guy," Simpson said off-air. "He's somebody who works hard, stays ready and, when given an opportunity, he generally seizes it."

Meanwhile, Prado is still getting to know himself in the unfamiliar role of everyday player.

With the wildest week of his baseball life just ended, there remains the whole rest of a career to color in.

He has repeated much the same thing often this month whenever asked about his reaction to sudden notoriety.

As if looking into a mirror to remind himself of what has brought him this far, Prado said, "I have to prove I can do a lot of things in baseball. To do that, I have to keep my mind strong, not worry about anything else and have a plan before every game."

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