LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Hindered for two seasons by a hand injury, center fielder Jordan Schafer finally looks fit again — and raring to go. This is good news for the Braves.
Suddenly, center field doesn’t seem like it’s Nate McLouth-or-bust. If Schafer is the player he was before an April 2009 hand fracture, outfield depth might not be an acute concern.
“I think when we get to the end of spring, if he’s had a great spring, he’s going to make us think about some things, for sure,” general manager Frank Wren said. “Whether it’s where he should play, or does he fit on our team somehow.
“He’s clearly a talented guy that got off track for a couple of years.”
After playing only 135 games in two seasons, conventional wisdom says Schafer starts the 2011 season in the minors, where he could play every day. But what if the speedy left-hander, who’s hit almost nothing but line drives in the first week of camp, surpasses expectations in spring training?
What is he’s ready to be the fourth outfielder or push McLouth for a starting job?
McLouth hit .190 with six homers and a .298 on-base percentage in 85 games during a season that included a concussion and a demotion to the minors to repair his swing. The veteran’s in the final year of his contract and has the inside track on the starting job.
McLouth has also impressed Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez in early workouts.
So where could that leave Schafer?
“We’ll see,” said Schafer, 24, unable to contain a smile when asked about his work so far. “How do I feel? Like [bleeping] success. Unbelievably good.
“I felt good coming in, but this is way beyond anything I could have expected. I couldn’t ask for anything more. This is the best that I’ve felt coming into any spring training, as far as being prepared, as far as strength-wise, just everything.”
That’s saying something, considering how he played during 2009 spring training. Few expected him to make the major league team as a non-roster invitee that spring.
Not only did he make the team, he won the starting center-field job, displaying a package of speed, power and aggression in spring training too good to keep on the farm. He homered on opening day at Philadelphia in his major league debut.
“If you roll it back to when we broke camp two years ago, people were talking about him as one of the most dynamic, impressive players they saw in Florida,” Wren said. “So if he can get back to that and be a guy that’s an option for us, that’s big. For him and for us.”
Schafer homered in his first and third major league games in 2009, and the left-hander was 8-for-19 with four extra-base hits, three walks and six runs after five games.
But he also had a sore left hand that was a lot worse than he led on, stemming from a swing he took in his home debut. Schafer would later say he heard a pop in his wrist that day, but kept playing.
After the first five games, he hit .176 with no homers, five RBIs and 59 strikeouts in 148 at-bats over his next 45. Schafer has not played in the majors since.
Doubts crept into his mind during an injury ordeal that included multiple MRIs, September 2009 surgery and frustrating setbacks. Now he finally feels back in the game.
“I feel comfortable with everything,” he said. “I don’t have any [pain].”
He reported to camp early. He simplified his stance, eliminating a toe tap and leg lift.
“The first day I was out here, Chip [Chipper Jones] was like, your swing is so much better now,” Schafer said, “because my hands are going down to the ball. I’ve tried to limit everything – no fly balls, just line drives. Try not to hit any home runs in [batting practice]. Just try to be more of a productive leadoff-type hitter that will get on base.”
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “I think his approach should be just that. A gap guy, line drives. He’s got enough juice where he can run into quite a few [homers]. But if you [try to hit home runs], it’s not good. Lot of swinging and missing.”
Schafer hit a home run off Braves left-hander Jonny Venters during a workout last week. With Gonzalez watching Saturday, he hit line drives off the outfield fence against top pitching prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado.
“He had a helluva round,” said Gonzalez, who was not with the Braves in 2009 and never saw Schafer at his best.
Schafer, whose weight dipped to 169 in the weeks after surgery, is a wiry 202 now.
A year ago in spring training, when he tried to rush his return, he was disheartened by recurring pain that prevented him from even hitting on consecutive days.
“That was useless a year ago,” said Schafer, who spent the season in the minors, hitting .201 with one homer in 209 at-bats at Triple-A before a late demotion to Double-A.
He played 18 games at Mississippi before the Braves pulled the plug and decided it best to send him home to rest and get ready winter rehab.
Things finally improved in November while he worked with Braves minor league physical therapist Troy Jones. By December, Schafer was brimming with his former confidence, which had been absent since his injury.
Now, he’s showing he might be ready to compete for a job.
“That’s very encouraging,” Wren said. “He’s a good player when he’s right. So we need to be thankful he’s right, and take it from there now, and see where it goes.”