Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – Patience and taking it easy, these aren’t things that come naturally for young Jordan Schafer.
But he knows that’s how it needs to be this spring. So he’ll do it. Or try.
The Braves center fielder is regaining strength in his surgically repaired left hand, and the team doesn’t want him pushing too hard in an effort to impress during spring training. No need for that. Not this time.
Schafer was instructed not to do any hitting Wednesday, so he didn’t.
“His hand is weak,” manager Bobby Cox said. “He’s having — not a setback – he’s just sore from starting out again. It’s going to be a process for him just about all spring.
“We want him to be ready for the season, whatever it takes.”
Ready for a long season, as opposed to ready for opening day against the Chicago Cubs. Barring injuries to other outfielders, he is likely to open at Class AAA Gwinnett.
“Truthfully, I’m not worried about it at all,” said Schafer, 23. “Whatever they want to do. I just want to be healthy. If I’m healthy, I know my talent and my skills. I know I’m good enough to play when I’m healthy. I just need to make sure I’m healthy.”
He got his cast off in December and gradually built his workload in recent weeks. After increasing his hitting in the opening week of camp, he had some discomfort.
“It’s good,” he said of the hand. “But I still need to get some strength back in there. Where I had surgery, that feels really good; no pain in it at all. It’s just my hand’s still weak. I was in the cast so long, I have to do the rehab stuff every day, all kinds of stuff.
“It’s all in my joint and my hand, you can tell this part [points to inside edge of palm] isn’t like thick like this is here [points to other hand]. It’s just going to take time. I have to watch it. I’ll hit off the tee to try to warm up, then I’ll take, like, 20 swings and I’ll stop. I’m trying not to push it too much. We’ve got six weeks [at spring training], so….”
But it’s clear from talking to him that all this down time and rehab has worn on him. This isn’t anything he’s used to, or ever wants to get used to. That’s why he wants to do this right this spring, in hopes of getting past this injury and not having another season undermined.
“No more of that,” said Schafer, who doesn’t want to become known as a player who’s not durable or can’t be relied upon. “I’ve never been hurt — this is the first time I’ve really missed a lot of time being hurt. It’s a pain in the ass, but like I said I just need to make sure I’m healthy before anything.”
A year ago he won the opening-day job in center with his spring performance, outplaying Josh Anderson and Gregor Blanco in Grapefruit League games and exciting everyone with sensational defense and potent offense. Anderson was traded.
But after Schafer hit two homers in the opening series at Philadelphia, he hurt his hand in the home opener. He tried to play through the injury but was never the same, and he was hitting .204 with 63 strikeouts in 167 at-bats when he got demoted on June 2.
Schafer never told anyone how much his hand hurt and asked to stay in – he now admits that was a mistake — but Cox still takes responsibility for keeping him in the lineup.
“Schafe last year unfortunately broke his hand — and played with it,” Cox said. “It really wasn’t fair to him. I was kind of selfish — I left him in there because of his defense. I thought we’d hit enough to get by.”
After his demotion, he went on the disabled list and had multiple exams for recurring soreness before an MRI finally showed the fracture. He had surgery in September.
The Braves traded for center fielder Nate McLouth immediately after sending Schafer to the minors. They added versatile outfielder Melky Cabrera from the Yankees in the December trade for Javier Vazquez.
But general manager Frank Wren is adamant when he says that Schafer hasn’t slipped in the Braves’ view. I asked Wren that specifically, whether Schafer had slipped as a prospect from the organization’s perspective.
“Not at all,” Wren said. “He still can do all the same things, and there’s a lot of guys in the history of the game that had a stumble or have taken a step back when they got to the big leagues the first time. As long as the ability’s there and the player’s willing to work and fight through it, you feel good about it. We see him as a big part of the future.”
If rookie phenom Jason Heyward wins the right-field job this spring, the Braves would likely use Matt Diaz and Melky Cabrera in left field. If they decide that Heyward needs a little more time in the minors, Cabrera could start out in right field.
Either way, there is no rush to get Schafer into the lineup. They just want him healthy, so he can have a full season after missing large chunks of the past two seasons for a 50-game performance-enhancing drug suspension in 2008 and the injury.
“From my perspective, he just needs to play baseball,” Wren said. “When he plays, he plays very well. He needs to continue to get as many at-bats and regain what he lost in the last year or so with injuries and various things. To me, that’s what’s going to determine when he gets here full-time.”