ORLANDO — While Braves officials sip coffee at opening sessions of the Winter Meetings Monday morning at Disneyworld, a few miles away a Braves center fielder will already be well into a rigorous 6-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week workout regimen that he’s confident will help restart his stalled career.
If you don’t think 24-year-old Jordan Schafer can do it, if you’re among those who’ve written off the kid who pretty much owned 2009 Braves spring training and homered that opening day at Philadelphia in his big-league debut, he understands.
Really, he does.
At some frustrating points in the past year, Schafer himself wondered whether he’d regain the strength in his left wrist and hand, after bone-fusion surgery in September 2009 and dispiriting setbacks in the recovery.
“I had doubt in my mind going through the injury and everything that followed,” said Schafer, who has struggled mightily during most of two lost seasons since he broke a bone swinging a bat during the Braves’ 2009 home opener.
“But now that I’ve been able to swing for a month and half with no problems, and my weight and speed and all that are back and better, I’ve never felt this good going into spring training. I feel 100 percent confident going into spring training, that I can open a lot of people’s eyes and show what I can do.”
OK, he realizes that some of you are rolling your eyes right about now. The ones already tired of waiting for Schafer to rebound. Many doubt he can or will.
“If you’re a fan and you see a kid come up and do well and then struggle,” Schafer said, “then he gets sent down [demoted in the minors] and keeps struggling – well, I understand fans getting pissed and wanting to give up on [him].
“But at the same time, you have to understand I went through a lot with the injury and struggling to get back. Hopefully when I come back to spring training and show what I can do, people will be able to see I’m ready to go now.”
Schafer won the opening-day center field job in 2009 after going to spring training as a non-roster invitee and putting on a show in workouts and especially in Grapefruit League games. He demonstrated a package of speed, power, aggressiveness and pure baseball instincts.
It really was something to behold. We all thought so – players, coaches, media members, Bobby Cox, all of us. At least one high-ranking Braves official said that on a lot of days that spring, he looked like the best player on the field.
He won the job over Gregor Blanco and Josh Anderson, the latter traded away late in spring when the Braves decided Schafer was their guy.
The 22-year-old opening-day starter homered against the Phillies in his first and third major league games. He drove in three runs in that opening series, and Schafer was 8-for-19 with four extra-base hits, three walks and six runs after his first five major league games.
But he also had a sore left hand, from a painful swing he took in his home debut, the fourth game of his career. Schafer would later say he heard a pop in his wrist that day, but he kept playing, told team officials he was good to go.
After working most of his life with a single-minded goal of reaching the majors, he wasn’t about to say that his hand hurt and he needed to rest. But he knows now that he should have.
After those first five games, Schafer hit .176 (26-for-148) with six doubles, no homers, five RBIs and 59 strikeouts in 148 at-bats over his next 45 games, through May 31, 2009.
He has not played in the major leagues since.
Shipped to Triple-A Gwinnett to heal and get his confidence back, Schafer rested briefly, but didn’t regain anything. Because the hand and wrist kept hurting during a few more aborted comeback attempts that season in Triple-A.
He played in nine games for Gwinnett in 2009, a few games here and there between DL stints and X-rays and MRIs, the last of which finally revealed the severity of his injury, a fracture that explained why Schafer had never felt right again after that “pop” or got past the pain with periods of rest.
It hadn’t been a ligament tear or other soft-tissue damage, as originally suspected. It was bone. In a difficult place to heal, especially for a baseball player whose approach to struggles had always been to work more intensely.
Schafe had surgery on Sept. 9, 2009, a procedure in which a patch of bone was used to fuse the fracture above his left wrist.
Braves head trainer Jeff Porter told him after the surgery that it would probably take a full year before he felt right and regained his strength in that hand and wrist.
After being cleared to hit again the following spring, he went into 2010 spring training hoping to regain his spot, but knowing that he might not be ready right away when the season began.
Schafer had been told there would be lingering discomfort as he increased his workload and began hitting each day, but he figured he could deal with that pain, as long as he wasn’t in danger of reinjuring the wrist.
The bone was healed. No problem there. But he’d underestimated the discomfort that he’d feel early in spring training when he started hitting again in consecutive days, even when just hitting off a tee or soft-tossed pitches.
Although Schafer had been told it’d take a year to get it back, that didn’t make the frustration and disappointment any easier to take when he realized during spring training that he still had a long way to go before he’d compete again for a major league job.
It was the beginning of another lost season, which started late and ended early because of lingering problems in the wrist. He played 76 games at three minor league levels and hit .201 with a .268 OBP and .255 slugging percentage.
That was a .524 OPS (and one homer) in 307 plate appearances in the minors, for the kid who’d homered on 2009 opening day to quiet a sellout crowd in Philly.
The low point last season? Being demoted from Triple-A to Double-A after the All-Star break, when the Braves hoped he could finish the season on a good note to help restore confidence going into the offseason.
Instead, he was shut down altogether in September and sent home to rest, after hitting .175 with no homers in 18 games at Double-A Mississippi.
Understanding what happened
“As far as the surgery, the injury itself was healed,” Schafer said. “But since I had been in a cast so long [before and after the September 2009 surgery], I had scar tissue around the nerve, and I couldn’t get strength in there.
“It was a mess for a year. If I’d do strengthening stuff, it’d be sore the next day. And if didn’t do strengthening exercises, I’d be too weak to swing. So basically it was a no-win situation.
Schafer did lower-body work in the weight room during last season, but couldn’t do much of anything to strengthen the hand while also trying to continue playing.
He said that changed soon after he reported to the Braves’ spring-training headquarters in Lake Buena Vista this past September, only about a half-hour from his dad’s house in Haines City.
Schafer left his Midtown Atlanta condo, packed a few bags and came to live with his dad for the offseason, so he could work out daily at the Braves’ Wide World of Sports facility. He’s spent the past three months working closely with Troy Jones, the Braves’ minor league physical therapist.
“I can’t describe to you how good he is,” Schafer said. “He’s unbelievably good. I rehabbed with him for about a month or more, and started getting healthy quick. Ever since then, I’ve been swinging now for two months, and been 100 percent fine….
“I remember when I had surgery, Porter told me it was going to be a year until I felt fine. I always told him I’d be OK in four or five months, I’d be fine. Sure enough, it took a whole year until I was able to swing every day and felt good. They were right the whole time.
“But I couldn’t just sit there and not do anything [last season]. I should have probably waited longer, but I felt like I had a shot, so OK, give it a shot.”
Eight months after feeling pain when he began hitting at spring training, Schafer said he felt entirely different this time when he re-started his hitting program in the same batting cage at the spring-training complex.
He’s been hitting twice a day in recent weeks and says it’s been without any pain in his hand and wrist. He hasn’t faced “live” pitching – full-on pitches from actual pitchers — but has taken thousands of swings in the cage, mostly off the tee or soft-tossed, and some batting practice at the University of Florida in Gainesville, off a neighbor friend who’s a Gators assistant coach.
Schafer also has been hitting plenty against the high-tech pitching machine that he bought five years ago with his signing-bonus money. He spends hours in the dusty warehouse in Haines City where the machine is set up, and Schafer confided that he has turned the thing up to its maximum 100-mph speed a few times to test his wrist. No problems, he said.
Between hitting sessions, Schafer has been lifting weights with more intensity than he’s had in the weight room for quite a while, and doing drills to sharpen his quickness and speed with Tom Shaw, a sprint coach who works with college football players as they prepare for the NFL scouting combines.
Schafer said he’s got his weight back up to 202 pounds, and has never been stronger in his life.
“I think he’s going to open some eyes back up,” Troy Jones said. “We tried to get him back [last year]. He knew he was going to probably have a little pain here and there throughout the year, and I think it just really affected his swing so much. He was afraid to uncork it and really groove his swing, because he was really apprehensive about his wrist. When he felt [pain in the wrist], it could be really intense.
“He’s swinging without any apprehensions now. I have no doubt he’s going to be 110 percent for spring training this year. I’m looking forward to seeing him. I’m excited because last year his state of mind, he was extremely frustrated with the whole process and how he felt. He just didn’t feel good
“You can tell, he’s got a completely different outlook as well as physical.”
Braves general manager Frank Wren gets regular updates from Jones, and is encouraged to hear the progress the center fielder has made.
“I know Schafer’s excited from a standpoint of being healthy and ready to compete,” Wren said. “We just have to continue to be patient. We’re all looking forward to seeing him back in uniform in the spring, and see if he can play like he did two years ago, when in spring training he was one of the most impressive players in Florida. Nothing’s changed, other than the calendar’s moved forward.”
In other words, the Braves still believe there’s a bright future ahead for Schafer, who was rated their No. 3 prospect at this time two years ago, behind Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward.
“Absolutely,” Wren said.
Schafer soared up the prospect charts after batting .312 with an .887 OPS in Class A in 2007, when he had a whopping 74 extra-base hits (10 triples, 15 homers) and 23 stolen bases in 136 games
Then came his 50-game suspension for alleged use of human growth hormone in 2008, when he played in only 86 games, tried to do too much to make up for lost time, and ended up hitting .269 with a still-solid .850 OPS and 10 homers.
There were plenty of skeptics when Schafer came to spring training as a non-roster invitee the following year, but in a matter of weeks he showed he was the real thing. Offensively, defensively, he did it all that spring to win the starting job.
Then came the injury, undisclosed at first, and the slump and demotion.
What’s ahead for Schafer?
For now, Nate McLouth is penciled in as the Braves’ starting center fielder; the veteran is owed $7.75 million and is all but untradeable after his 2010 performance. McLouth has been a disappointment since coming to the Braves during the 2009 season, when they traded for him as a direct result of Schafer’s initial struggles.
If McLouth sputters again, the Braves need a Plan B. Right now, Schafer is beginning to seem like he could possibly be that guy again.
Minor leaguer Matt Young, a little speedster who can play center field and several other positions, was added to the roster and will compete for a job this spring. But Young is 28 and has never played in the majors.
The Braves don’t know what Young can do against big-league pitching, but they’ve seen what Schafer can do, when healthy.
“He’s a talented guy that we’re going to watch in the spring and be open minded about,” Wren said. “We’ll see what the spring holds for him.”
Training alongside Prado
It’s been a solitary existence for Schafer for much of the fall in the weight room and batting cage, but he got a welcome training partner last week when Braves All-Star Martin Prado was cleared to begin working out and hitting.
Prado had been ordered to rest for two months after suffering a torn oblique muscle and hip pointer in late September. He’s been in Orlando working with Troy Jones for much of the offseason, but until last week Prado wasn’t permitted to do much of anything in terms of running, lifting and hitting.
Now, he’s working alongside Schafer. Prado is expected to be fully recovered for spring training, and Braves fans have him penciled in as their starting left fielder now that recently acquired slugger Dan Uggla is at second base.
“He’s doing really well,” Jones said of Prado. “He’s starting to take some nice easy swings off the tee, not feeling any discomfort, and starting to feel back to normal. We’re taking it nice and easy with him, making sure when he comes back in spring training he’s 100 percent.
“We’re going to work on getting him real strong this year. He’s going to be working some with Tom Shaw [this winter] as well, on mechanics, explosiveness.”
No team official doubts that Prado will be at 100 percent when the season begins. And while they can’t feel the same way yet about Schafer, he intends to show them – and everyone else – this spring.
Already, he looks the part.
“Yeah, he’ll be coming in the shredded Jordan again,” Jones said, referring to Schafer’s physique. “He’s looking great. I’m pretty impressed with how he’s worked. I tell you what, whatever happens, there will be no lack of effort on his part.
“He’s getting real strong, doing some really good stuff, good sprint work, lifting. He’s going to look a little bit different this year. He’s getting a little muscle back, but not too much where it’s going to slow him down. I can see him having a really good shot of making the opening day roster — and maybe stealing some bags.”
Schafer plans to come to Atlanta next week to begin working with new Braves hitting coach Larry Parrish, whom he’s spoken with on the phone recently. He’ll stay in Atlanta a while, then head back to Lake Buena Vista well before spring training begins. When position players arrive, needless to say he plans to be ready.
“As far as my body, this is the strongest I’ve been my entire life,” Schafer said. “I couldn’t be happier right now the way everything’s going, as far as my hand, my body, my strength. I’ve got all my strength and weight back. I couldn’t hope for anything more right now.”
♣ OK, time to go mill around with a hundred or more other reporters in the hotel lobby, acting like we know we’re doing important work. Let’s close with a tune by the band that did plenty of really important work, the mighty, mighty Clash. You can listen to Joe Strummer and the lads do the tune here.
“COMPLETE CONTROL” by The Clash
They said release ‘Remote Control’
But we didn’t want it on the label
They said, “Fly to Amsterdam”
The people laughed but the press went mad
Ooh ooh ooh someone’s really smart
Ooh ooh ooh complete control, yeah that’s a laugh
On the last tour my mates couldn’t get in
I’d open up the back door but they’d get run out again
At every hotel we was met by the Law
Come for the party – come to make sure!
Ooh ooh ooh have we done something wrong?
Ooh ooh ooh complete control, even over this song
You’re my guitar hero
They said we’d be artistically free
When we signed that bit of paper
They meant we’ll make a lotsa mon-ee
An’ worry about it later
Ooh ooh ooh I’ll never understand
Ooh ooh ooh complete control – lemme see your other hand!
I don’t judge you.
So, why do you judge me?
All over the news spread fast
They’re dirty, they’re filthy
They ain’t gonna last!
This is Joe public speakin’
I’m controlled in the body, controlled in the mind
This is punk rockers,
we’re controlled by the price of the hard drugs we must find
Freedom is control
C-o-n control – that means you!
– by David O’Brien, Braves blog