LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Martin Prado knows he has doubters now, folks who wonder if he can stay healthy and be as valuable to the Braves as a left fielder and backup third baseman as when he was an All-Star second baseman in 2010.
He knows some point out his 2011 season was not going particularly well even before he was sidelined five weeks at midseason for a nasty staph infection that required surgery.
Oh, Prado knows.
“Yeah, for sure,” he said. “And that’s a good thing. People just question, ‘Is this guy going to be good again?’ But let me tell you something. I like the challenge. I like that people challenge me, because it makes me go, maybe they don’t believe what I can do.”
His teammates believe, which is why so many were relieved when Prado wasn’t traded over the winter amid rumors that he and/or pitcher Jair Jurrjens might be shipped out in a deal for an outfield bat.
Prado will be in left field when the Braves open their Grapefruit League schedule Saturday against Detroit, and Jurrjens seems a likely candidate to start Opening Day against the New York Mets on April 5.
“Prado’s a prototypical No. 2 hitter, and he does everything that you want in a No. 2-hole hitter,” catcher Brian McCann said. “We’re excited to get him back healthy from the beginning of the season and have him for the whole way.
“His passion for the game is unmatched. I mean, he shows up every day with a passion to be great, and players that do that usually find success.”
Prado knows he still could be traded at some point, but says he’s not worried about it because it’s something he can’t control. His focus is on being the hitter again that he was before last season.
In his first full seasons in the majors, he posted consecutive .307 batting averages in more than 500 plate appearances in 2009 and ‘10. He had a .358 on-base percentage and .464 slugging percentage in ’09 and .350/.459 in ’10.
This after batting .320 with a .377 OBP in 254 plate appearances as a utility infielder in 2008, the first season he played as many as 30 games.
But last season he slipped badly: .260 average, .302 OBP, .385 slugging.
“He’s one of the best hitters in the league – I truly believe that,” McCann said. “If the game’s on the line and I want one person up, I think I’d pick him out of anybody in baseball. Yeah, last year wasn’t his best year. But he was shut down for a month and a half with staph infection and came back. The year before he was our best player.”
The only area where Prado didn’t slip significantly last season was home runs – he hit 13, two off his career best in 2010. But homers were actually part of the problem, he said.
Prado hit 10 homers before the All-Star break in 2010, and hasn’t been the same high-average, solid-OBP guy since. He doesn’t think it’s coincidence.
After becoming one of the league’s best practitioners of opposite-field hits to right field, Prado was more pull-conscious last season and lost his ability to punch balls through the right side at will.
Since he’s going to be hitting second again, behind one of the league’s speediest leadoff hitters in Michael Bourn, Prado came to camp this spring with opposite-field hitting as a priority.
“I’m feeling good, seeing the ball,” he said. “In case I’m in the second hole, I want to make sure that I can dominate the other way [to the right side]. That I can go there any time I want.
“I forgot that last year. Since I started hitting homers I was opening [his swing]. So I’m just going to go there and react. Even when they pitch me inside, I feel like I can go [to right]. That’s what I want to do this year.”
Last year he spent spring training trying to prepare for a new role after being switched from second base to accommodate the arrival of Dan Uggla.
Prado was the first to the ballpark and last to leave all last spring, and concedes he may have overdone it. This spring, he’s listening to his body, pulling back when he needs a rest.
After returning in mid-July from the disabled list after the staph infection, a weakened Prado – he was bed-ridden for the first half of his DL stint – hit just .244 with two homers and a .286 OBP in 55 games the rest of the season.
He regained his strength and stamina with a new offseason workout regimen and said he’s felt more energetic.
“If I can keep working like this, probably in two weeks I’ll be at the point where I want to be for the season,” he said.